Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

26 September 2013

Field Hospital for the Wounded

If you asked me what facets of parish ministry I enjoy and attend to the most, outside of the celebration of the Sacraments, I would have to offer two: the Christian education of adults and youth, and ministry to the sick and infirm. Oftentimes the twain meet, for several reasons: first, the sick are a "captive audience," though it certainly is inappropriate to lecture someone who is at his or her worst; second, the sick are in a vulnerable state, with a certain receptivity to and interest in the truth, which I am eager to offer at any available opportunity.

On one recent occasion, the Church's catechetical and healing ministries joined in a hospital visit. There I met an elderly man who apparently used to belong to our parish but has not been affiliated for many years. He was a product of 12 years of Catholic education. The man was quick to share the discouraging reports he heard about Catholic church and school memberships, as well as the alleged decrease in priests' participation in individual, family, and community activities.  I assured him that our school was doing quite well, and that we continue to receive people into the Church, even though ours certainly is not a flawless community of faith, devoid of attrition. Personally I could stand to be more visible and accessible among the people; these visits were a treasured example!

A few minutes into our conversation he shared a story: he told a priest in his high school of his intent to attend a college of another Christian stripe, but the priest discouraged him because that school would require him to take a "comparative religion" class. Perhaps, the man noted, this priest's admonition deserved a helpful follow-up comment, such as, "You're always welcome to talk to me about whatever the professor says in class." That was a very good suggestion, I noted, but there wasn't much he could do about it now, over sixty years later. He agreed, and after I offered a prayer and a blessing, we parted quite amicably.

We get people when/as we get people, and encounter them as well as we can; but upon further reflection I sensed my innate desire to "fix" his situation with accurate information and winsome personality. Some days, and some times of day, my supply of both drains easily. Moreover, information and personality aren't an ailing man's greatest need!

In his now-famous interview with a fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis referred to the Church as a "field hospital for the wounded." If a car accident victim comes into the emergency ward, do you immediately give him safety information? Well, no, I guess not...

Another quote from the interview speaks to this tendency: "Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person." On one hand is the sincere desire to influence, to help a person consider another way of looking at their experience--perhaps, so they could have more compassion for a figure in their past who remains unforgiven until now (such as that priest from his high school). On the other hand there is the ego-driven intent to manufacture a certain result or state, in which the person is reduced to a "project"--an ill-fated one at that.

There was more to our conversation than I recorded here. Thank God my interactions aren't "recorded for quality assurance," but in any case, I recognized anew in this interaction the call to listen deeply and respond to the deeper concerns. Sometimes people just need to be heard and to be reminded that the Lord loves them. The rest is not necessarily my business.

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