As we continue this series of teaching editorials on the priesthood, I would like to reflect on the ministry of pastoral care.
This May, I will mark my 40th anniversary as a priest. Fourteen months before I was ordained, in March 1972, I lay near death in a diabetic coma. Thus began my life in pastoral care. I awoke slowly during the fourth day of the coma, scaring the nurse with the query, “Hello, hello, is anybody there?” She nearly dropped dead on the spot.
Ministry happens. Ministerial training, seminary formation and academic study are all necessary foundations for priestly ministry that erupts in the mystery of human experience. In the arena of daily life, a priest finds himself surrounded with people whose lives are vessels of hope and joy, pain and suffering.
No priest chooses a particular path in ministry. Priests are ordained to a sacramental ministry that is central to the life of every Catholic. We celebrate those sacred rituals with care and confidence in the grace of God that works through us. Ask a priest what he remembers most about his pastoral ministry, and you will hear stories about people, names and places and events, small and tragic, where God is present. And if you listen closely, a priest will tell you stories of encounters he did not choose.
Instead, he found himself immersed in a sacred moment with people.
I did not choose a priestly ministry of pastoral care to the sick and dying. I found myself led there. It began with my struggle of doubt and anger with God after my close encounter with God in 1972. In that sudden and unexpected turn of events, I seriously wondered if God even existed. I asked the unanswered question, “If you called me to be a priest, why, why did you allow this to happen?”
What I failed to realize then was that God is in every moment of our lives; God was asking me, as a priest, to be present to others like myself: the doubting and wounded. My ministry would flow from my heart as an extension of God’s love through me. I was sent. I did not choose this path.
I listen now to the questions of doubt, fear and hopelessness from people who cannot touch, feel or understand where God is in their pain and suffering. In listening, I remember my own story. My listening is empathic, and I hope my compassion and my care are as special as God’s care.
I do not fear dying. I do feel the sacredness of listening to dying persons whose need is to know that God is close at hand. When I hold the hand of a person at their deathbed, in a silence that is deeper than any words, I pray for the light of God’s love to break the darkness of death. I ask myself, and other loved ones, to maintain a close vigil of loving care in which we repeat words of hope and peace and serve as the voice of God in the midst of grief.
There is, for me, no greater space or moment in life than to accompany someone in the moments before death. And I am aware that as I hold hands with the dying, I cannot see the path unfolding before that person. It is a journey home to God that no one else can see. I surrender that child of God to One who is love.
In my pastoral care ministry as a priest, I believe that God places me in the right place at the right time. I am sent tired or ready, hospital or home, deathbed or operating room; I am there willingly with great confidence in the grace and love of God. Many other people are sent as well to be healers among the sick, but for me, it is very personal.
I take each day as a gift from God. My “morning prayer” begins with a few units of insulin, repeated through the day. It is a reminder to me that my life and death are in balance with the mystery of a few grams of liquid. God sends a priest in ministry to testify, by the example of his life, that life and death is one cycle of love in which God is always present, waiting for us to arrive home.
Rev. Paul A. Scaglione, Pastor
St. Barnabas Church