Today's post is the result of two ideas. The first comes from the notion that you are far more interesting that you think you are. The reason people's lives in books and movies seem so interesting is that they have writers who who cut out all the mundane and unnecessary stuff to a particular storyline (except the sex of course - *sigh* - Okay, I've got it! They're having sex. Can we move along?) I thoroughly believe that something happens to you everyday or nearly everyday that would make a good story if the time were taken to contemplate it or if it could be seen it from the outside. Your life is foreign and interesting to somebody.
The second notion comes from people always asking, "So what do you do as a priest?" The response usually begins with, "What day?" because there isn't an average day in the life of . . .
So last January I tried a little experiment. Every day I would write a short story about what happened the previous day. One to show that something story-worthy happens in average people's lives and two to give an answer to the question, "What a day in the life of a priest like?" What follows is from the first day, January 12th.
Incidentally, the title of this blog entry, "Everybody Calls Me Father" is the title of a best selling book that my first pastor, Fr. Hilkert (RIP) wrote when he was a young priest.
When the phone in the common room rings, it is not good news. This is the emergency line. Someone is dead or someone thinks someone will soon be dead. It only rings when nobody is around. It is the last chance to catch a priest and it rang just in time. I was on my way out to hear first confessions at a neighboring parish.
“Hello Father,” came the voice on the other end of the line, “This is Dunley Funeral home.”
Someone was dead.
There was to be a funeral the next day for a man who had suffered with leukemia for many years. A couple days before I had anointed him while his wife cried. He was barely able to speak or move and she was as sad as if he had already gone and died. “I can’t live without him,” she said. And she didn’t. The family had gone to pick her up for the evening calling hours and found her dead on the floor. She couldn’t live without him.
“Father, could you go to the hospital and comfort the family?” asked the funeral director. I replied “Of course,” as if it was the most natural and comfortable thing to do, but deep down I was sick to think of it. The neighboring parish was called and warned that I would either be late or perhaps absent all together. I put on my coat, and headed for the hospital.
I suppose people expect priests to be brave in these situations, to know what to say and what to do, and indeed I’ve known Godly men who were just so, but that is not the case with me. It was with great trepidation that the emergency room door was opened. What will they expect? How emotional will they be? Will I say or do the right thing?
The hospital staff is exceptionally kind and helpful and show the way to the waiting room with apologetic smiles and concerned brows. Nobody in the room looks familiar and there are a couple of uneasy moments while everyone tries to figure out if we are there for each other. Finally a lady stands and introduces herself as the sister to the person who died. She is crying. Her arms move in such a fashion that I can’t tell if she is simply frustrated or looking for a hug. I put my arm around her shoulder and let her determine if she wants more of a hug or not.
After a few words of condolences we “go to see her.” There is finally someone whom I recognize. She is also the only person not breathing. Great sobs are let out and tears fall like rain. “Why don’t we say some prayers?” That seems to bring some amount of comfort.
“Would anyone like to talk?” I ask thinking that maybe someone would like to speak privately. This is the hardest. This is when questions like “Why?” come up. Even if this question were answerable, it is not answerable here and now. Though theologically convincing and understandable, it makes no sense standing in an emergency room looking at the dead body of the one you love if you’ve not thought about it, prayed about it, believed it, and were ready for it.
“There is someone else you should see Father.” The dead lady’s daughter was in yet another emergency room bed with heart problems. She was given the anointing of the sick. We talked for a bit and then it was time for me to go; the family was turning in on itself to begin communal mourning and while welcome, I was no longer necessary.
A five-minute drive brought me to the neighboring parish where I was originally headed. There were still lines of second graders making their first confessions. Sitting down, a young person came over to me dressed in the finest of clothes and with an excited look. “Bless me father for I have sinned, this is my first confession.” I smiled back and was genuinely happy to be there on this person’s joyous day. Thus was I yanked from despair to joy, from death to new life, and the hand stretched out over the young penitent’s head offering absolution still had the oil from the blessing of the sick on its finger tips.