I recently sat down and interviewed a priest I know about his years of experience in ministry to the dying and their families. Our conversation sure went on for a long time! Here are just two of the great answers he gave me.
Me: Father John, what do you consider to be the greatest privilege and challenge of ministering to the dying and their families?
Father John: It is profoundly humbling to be welcomed by someone into the sacred space of their life, principally because as a priest I am a sign of God’s presence to them and a sign of the Church’s nearness. And when I’m welcomed in, these people – the one who is dying and the family – are usually not in a good place. They don’t want people around. So I immediately get the sense that what they are welcoming in me is well beyond who “Father John” is. They want God to be with them. It’s an honor to be there, but also terrifying because you have nothing to say, no magic formulas, that will fix the problem. I can be with them, pray with them, listen to them. I don’t go to save the day. Just be present, accompany them along the way.
It’s also a privilege because I come bearing a faith that says death is not the end of the story, the tomb is not a villain. I bring a word of hope, of comfort, and being able to express that is an enormous blessing. And it also makes me remember my own mortality. So while I represent God and his Church, I also experience my own limitedness. That’s a blessing, too.
Me: What would you name as the most valuable gift you hope to leave behind when you minister to the dying?
Father John: To know that the gift of faith has benefitted others in their time of sorrow, that something greater than all of us – mercy, love, reconciliation – has entered this painful moment of life. Something greater – that God desires to be in relationship with us. In life, so many things can distract us from this relationship – possessions, busyness, competition. But when we face death and everything gets stripped away? Wow. When we have nothing left to hide behind or to distract us? That, I find, is when God really reveals himself powerfully. It’s like death itself becomes a vocation, an event that calls us to return to God, to love, to what is essential. There we see God is with us, welcoming us closer, to surrender. And I get to be there. That’s just awesome.
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Tom Neal PhD