I was ordained to the priesthood on Memorial Day weekend, but I did not begin my first assignment as a priest until nearly a month later. I arrived at my first assignment full of excitement and energy. My pastor handed me the keys to the parish and then began his month-long vacation. I remember praying before I went to sleep that night, hoping that the “emergency line,” a special extension set up to get in touch with a priest after office hours, would not ring.
Around two o’clock in the morning the phone rang, and I answered it. As I answered the phone, I remember simultaneously praying and hoping that the phone call was not about a sick child. Once again, though, God did not answer my prayer. The call was about a one-year-old girl who was dying of cancer. She was not expected to make it through the night.
I quickly dressed and drove to the hospital. The whole time, I kept trying to figure out what I was going to say. I do not remember much of what happened that night except that I know that I did not do much of the talking.
With an amazing faith, the young girl’s parents told me of their loving daughter and of the pain they were feeling, and then they told me something that has always stuck with me. They said that if they had to do it all over again, with all the pain and heartache, that they would because they loved their daughter that much. Jenna made it through the night, her little body fighting off the staph infection.
Getting to know little Jenna over the next few months was a great blessing. One of my favorite memories of being is a priest is the opportunity I had to celebrate Mass with Jenna and her family in their home at the suggestion of my pastor.
And then another strong memory: I can still vividly recall sitting in the back of the church praying before the all-school Mass that I was about to celebrate when Jenna’s father walked in and told me that Jenna had passed away. I prayed with him for a few moments and then began Mass. I was so broken up that, when I could not remember my homily, I simply asked the children to join me in praying a “Hail Mary” for Jenna.
A few years later, I found myself in the back of the parish church as the 6 p.m. Youth Mass was about to come to an end. I had not been the celebrant that evening, but I wanted to greet the people as they left the church.
Ann and Ken
As I walked into the church, I caught sight of Ann. Ann was a parishioner whom I had wanted to introduce myself to for some time. I knew her husband Ken pretty well from working with him, as he was a core member for our youth ministry program.
Ann and Ken had three children, and that evening Ann was standing in the back of the church trying to keep their youngest quiet. For some reason, though, I chickened out that night and never introduced myself to her.
The next day, I received a call because Ann had been diagnosed that morning with terminal cancer and had been told that she only had three months at most to live. I traveled down to the hospital and spent the rest of day with Ken and Ann.
Over the next three months, I spent a lot of time with Ann as she prepared to move onto the next life. I can remember one time when she and I were talking and she told me that she used to hate her husband Ken because when he got into the car he could listen to any radio station that he wanted to but when she got into the car she had to listen to Barney the Dinosaur and the Wiggles.
Time: A Treasure
She went on to tell me how, now, she realized how silly she had been and that she would do almost anything to be in her car driving her children around listening to those children’s songs over and over again.
One day, as if she were reading my mind, she told me that even though the cancer was painful she would not shorten her time through suicide because now, in a special way, she saw time as a treasure and intended to enjoy every moment she could with her husband, children and the rest of her family.
A few years later, my own grandmother began to suffer more and more from dementia and Alzheimer’s. It was very painful to watch this once-independent woman suffer the way she did.
During this time my mother did her best to take care of her and my mother would ask me from time to time to come over and stay with my grandmother for an hour so that she could get out of the house. There was a large part of me that did not want to go because seeing my grandmother reminded me of my fears — of being helpless, of not being in control, of being pitied, etc. — and there were times that I almost told my mother “no.”
In the end, I did spend a lot of time with my grandmother, and there are some moments from these visits that I treasure most. For example, I can remember one time we were sitting in the living room watching television when she turned to me and asked me where my children were.
This surprised me greatly because she knew that I was a priest and that I did not have children. I spent 10 minutes trying to convince her of that fact. In the end I just gave in and told my grandmother that my supposed children were at home with my supposed wife. This calmed her down for about 10 minutes.
Then she turned to me a second time and asked me where my children were. Not wishing to argue with her, I told her that they were at home with my wife. She then shot me a look of disappointment and proceeded to inform me that priests should not have children. I could not help but laugh — I could not win for losing.
I chose these three stories from my life to illustrate to you that, for me, being pro-life has had nothing to do with philosophical arguments of when life begins, but rather my being pro-life has had everything to do with overcoming fear.
I can imagine no greater pain in life than to lose a child. This knowledge of the pain comes from having lost my older sister when she was four and I was two and from listening to my mother pour out her heart to me in later years.
Jenna’s parents, though, were willing to bravely face this pain because of the love they had for their daughter. In our world today, many men and women are choosing to have an abortion because they are afraid of how a child would “mess up” their lives, especially if this child has a developmental disorder or fatal disease. Jenna’s parents’ brave declaration that they would be willing to do it all over again teaches us that human life is worth all the troubles it may bring because a human life is priceless.
The Precious Gift
I know that Jenna’s smiles and hand-holding made me — and others — love her instantly. We never saw the illness, but rather the precious gift that she was. We just had to overcome our fears to be able to get to know her.
Watching Ann suffer was not a pleasant experience, but learning from her how to be grateful for small things helped me have courage to walk with her and, later, with my grandmother as they neared death. Doing so, though, meant that I really had to face my own fears and not only the fear of death. Death, in some sense, did not scare me. What scares me is the fear of losing control and being so vulnerable. It takes courage to see that God can still use you in your terminal illness.
Ann courageously taught me so much, and she continued to love her family with every ounce of strength she had until it was her time to go. She bravely held nothing back from her family.
Finally, when I hear people say “quality of life” in regards to euthanasia, I cannot help but think of that person as being cowardly. It is easy to blame the person with dementia for the way that we are feeling, and it is much harder to look inside and see the fear of death, of not being in control, and of being vulnerable.
A priest who had battled cancer for most of his life once described illness/sickness as returning to our greatest but simplest dignity. My grandmother could not do much for herself, but she still taught me a lot and brought great joy to my heart when I bravely overcame my fears and allowed myself to spend time with her.
These experiences and others have allowed me to come to the conclusion that the greatest enemy in the pro-life movement is fear. Perhaps this is why Gabriel, when informing Mary of God’s plan for her to have a child out wedlock, began with “Do not be afraid.” May we all have the courage to face our fears when it comes to life issues, and may we help those in crisis pregnancies, difficult pregnancies, and other situations where life is threatened to no longer be afraid.
FATHER PASTORIUS is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish, St. Louis, Mo.