Some years ago, on Monday of Holy Week I made my rounds, visiting the homebound, hearing their confessions and giving them the Holy Eucharist. Mac, who was bedfast and nearly blind, was extremely depressed that day. As I sat by his bedside, he told me he was such a burden to his wife, he was helpless and depended upon her for his every need. He just wanted to die.
Holding his hand in mine I said to him: “Mac, Jesus was most helpless when He hung on the cross. Yet in doing so, He performed the greatest work in human history! He won our salvation! By joining your sufferings with His you can contribute to the good of the Church. This week I will be spending many hours in the confessional hearing confessions as people prepare to celebrate Easter. Could I ask you to offer up all that you are going through, your pain, your discomfort, your feeling of being a burden to your wife, would you offer all this up for that person who needs a special grace to return to the Lord?”
Mac said he would do this, and I soon let this conversation fade from my mind. Holy Week is always a busy time. I was looking forward to Easter Sunday and to taking a break afterwards. My ordination classmates always got together on Easter Monday in St. Louis, Missouri, to concelebrate the Eucharist, then socialize and go out for dinner. I planned to join them.
Thus, on Easter Sunday I was looking forward to celebrating the last Mass, grabbing my bags and heading to the airport 160 miles away for the flight to St. Louis. Just as I finished proclaiming the Gospel at that Mass and was about to begin my homily, a bum stepped into the back of Church. He had to be a bum. He was dressed in dirty blue jeans and wore a sleeveless sweatshirt, certainly not the normal Easter Sunday attire. He stood in the back of Church and looked around.
I knew exactly what would happen. After Mass he would be camping outside, waiting to see me with a long story about how he was going to see a sick relative in a distant city and needed money for gas. This was not what I needed that Sunday morning! I was so distracted by his presence that I blew my homily, left the best part out and was totally frustrated.
Sure enough, after greeting people after Mass and putting things away in Church, I walked over to the rectory and found him sitting on the front steps.
“Father, do you have a few minutes? I need to talk to you!”
What could I say! I was trapped! I thought to myself: “I hope he gets to the point quickly so I can give him a few bucks and be on my way!”
Inviting him inside, we sat down and he began to tell his story. He had left Omaha that morning to go to South Dakota to pick up a trailer for a friend. Somewhere along the way he got lost and ended up driving through our town.
“It’s so strange,” he said. “I’ve never been through this area before, and as I approached your town I became so curious about it. I’ve never felt that way before. I decided to drive around and check it out. I drove around the golf course, the swimming pool, through downtown and up the hill to your church. When I saw all those cars parked outside, I decided to stop and take a look inside. Father, I haven’t been to church for years! I didn’t even know it was Easter Sunday! I walked into church just as you began to preach the sermon.”
“Ja!” I thought to myself, “Because of you I blew it!”
“Something you said, Father, really touched me! It’s been a long time since I last went to church or to confession. I wonder if you could help me!”
Still questioning his sincerity I thought to myself: “This guy is really smooth! He will go to confession, then ask for a few bucks!”
As I began to review the Ten Commandments with him and listened to his responses I realized that he was sincere and that I was witnessing a moment of grace. He made a thorough confession, after which I invited him to go back to the church with me to receive the Eucharist. I shared with him the Gospel for the liturgy of the day, John’s account of the appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and explained to him how Jesus had met him on the road to South Dakota.
As we walked back toward his truck he stopped and thanked me. “Father, I’m sure I have delayed you, please accept a token of my appreciation.” Pulling out his wallet, he gave me a $10 bill.
As I drove to the airport that afternoon, flew to St. Louis and throughout the rest of the week I kept reviewing my homily, trying to figure out what I might have said that had touched him. Because I was so distracted by his presence, I blew the homily. I finally realized it was nothing I had said, I was simply privileged to witness a miracle of grace.
It wasn’t until many months later and a number of visits with Mac that I suddenly made the connection. I had asked Mac to offer up his sufferings for someone who needed that special grace to return to the Lord!
Some months later I anointed Joe, who was dying of cancer. I asked him to offer up his sufferings for someone who needed God’s special grace to return to Him. The next afternoon a fellow dropped by the rectory and wanted to see a priest. His last confession had been 24 years ago.
‘I Just Felt This Strong Urge’
After he made his confession I asked him why he had decided to come that day, to which he replied: “Father, I don’t know. I’m not from this town. I was approaching town on the highway and saw your church sign and I just felt this strong urge to straighten out my life with God. It all happened so suddenly, I can scarcely believe I am here.”
Less than an hour later a second man dropped by for the same reason! After he left, I went over to visit Joe and shared the incredibly good news with him.
Now, whenever I anoint people, I share with them the passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians in which he states: “I rejoice now in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ I fill up in my flesh for his body, which is the Church” (1:24).
At a communal anointing one day I asked all who came forward to receive the sacrament to offer up their sufferings for whomever God saw needed that special grace to return to Him. Several hours after that liturgy a young man dropped by the rectory and asked if I would visit his mother who had just been admitted to the hospital. She had had a run-in with a priest many years ago and had left the Church. I assured him that I would drop by the hospital that afternoon and visit her.
“Father, whatever you do, please don’t tell her that I was here to see you!” he said. “That would really upset her!”
When I went to the hospital several hours later and walked into her room, I saw the young man and his dad with her. I introduced myself and before I could say anything else she said to her husband and son: “Would you please leave. I’d like to talk to Father alone.”
Without even asking her, she stated that she wanted to go to confession.
I anointed a woman in the nursing home who is totally dependent upon others. She has a little mobility in her left hand which allows her to maneuver a motorized wheelchair. She has a difficult time speaking and suffers a lot of pain. Anointing her one Friday afternoon, I asked her to offer up all that she was enduring, uniting her sufferings with that of Jesus on the cross, for some person who needed God’s special graces to return to Him.
Two day later, Sunday evening, I received a call from a woman whose husband was dying from cancer. He had been in a coma all week long, but that afternoon had become lucid and asked for a priest. I rushed over immediately. He made his confession after being away from the Church for 60 years. I anointed him, gave him the Eucharist and prayed the rosary with him. I assured him I would be back the next day with Communion, but that night he slipped back into a coma and died.
On another occasion, at a communal anointing, so many people stood up and came forward to be anointed that I counted them, something I had never done before. I anointed 62 people that morning and, as always, shared the passage from Colossians and asked them to offer up their chronic aches, pains and disabilities for whomever God saw needed a special grace to return to Him. People often will offer the name of a child, relative or friend who has left the Church, but I always tell them to let God decides who needs that grace the most.
This liturgy was over at 9:10 a.m., after which a couple from the parish took the Eucharist to the sick in the hospital. At 10:30 a.m., they returned and stopped by the rectory to tell me there was a man in special care who wanted to see a priest. I quickly went to the hospital and walked into the room occupied by a gentleman who was nearly 90 years old.
When I introduced myself, he said, “Thank you, Father, for coming! A couple dropped in to see me this morning with Holy Communion. I suddenly realized I need to make my peace with God.”
“Good,” I said, “I can hear your confession, give you the Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion!”
“That would be great!” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this all morning! As near as I can remember I think it must be about 62 years since I last went to confession.”
I can still feel the hair rising on the back of my neck when I heard that. I realized I was witnessing another miracle of grace!
I heard the man’s confession, anointed him, gave him Holy Communion and three days later officiated at his funeral.
I could share with you 40 or more similar stories. It happens so often that I now tell people that I will use them for bait and together we may catch a big fish. Through such experiences I have come to recognize this special ecclesial benefit attached to suffering and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. People have also told me that by uniting their suffering with those of Jesus on the cross, they find meaning and purpose in their sufferings.
One final passage I often share with the elderly who are confined to a wheelchair, sick bed or nursing home, is an account of one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to Peter, John and some of the other disciples (Jn 21:1-19). First Jesus gives Peter a chance to make up for his threefold denial by asking him: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (Jn 21:16).
St. Peter Crucified
Then Jesus says to Peter, “I tell you solemnly, as a young man you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will” (21:18).
The Gospel continues: “What He said indicated the sort of death by which Peter would glorify God” (21:19). We know from tradition that in his old age Peter was led out and crucified in the Circus Maximus.
I remind people who have suffered a debilitating illness that when they were young, they too went about as they pleased, but now they are confined to their sick bed or wheelchair. By accepting and embracing this cross as St. Peter did, they too can glorify God.
Such an attitude can give meaning and purpose to their suffering when otherwise there may be only frustration, anger and pain. By embracing their crosses they too can make up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on the cross on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24).
As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1521: “By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” TP
Father Miksch is pastor of St. Isidore Parish in Columbus, Neb.