I was visiting my mother in intensive care when a patient several beds away began to struggle and shout. An emergency code was issued, bringing medical personnel running from far and wide, and all visitors were ushered out into the hallway to allow the staff to work.
It was already about nine o’clock in the evening, and I made my way down the elevator to the front of the hospital. The air was temperate for October, so comfortable in fact that I parked myself on an outdoor bench, opening my cell phone to update the family at home. A pair of automatic doors parted, and two men emerged from the building deep in conversation. As they shook hands to say goodbye, I heard one say to the other in the most heartfelt of tones, “Thank you, Father.”
The priest was wearing a collar, and slipping the phone into my bag, I could not resist smiling and saying, “Hello, Father” as he passed. He returned my greeting and paused a moment, as if he was used to strangers wanting a word with him. Given the opportunity, I added, “Father, I wonder if you could pray for my mother — she had an extensive stroke yesterday.”
“Yes, I will pray for her,” he said, looking sorry to hear the news.
“Are you a chaplain at this hospital, Father?” I asked hopefully, “because I know she would love to see a priest.”
“No,” he said, “I am from St. Boniface and was called in tonight because someone died, but I will come back to see her tomorrow. What is her name?”
“Alice O’Brien,” I told him, welling up at this kindness, my voice wavering a little. “She is in intensive care.”
“Alice O’Brien,” he repeated, “I will see her tomorrow,” and I thanked him heartily as the two of us parted ways.
Still reeling from the shock of my mother’s stroke, I had not yet cried over it. Alone in the car a minute or two later, the tears flowed, tears of sorrow to be sure, but also tears of affection and gratitude for this good priest. I prayed that God would bless him always and thanked Our Lady for putting one of her faithful sons in my path when he was so needed.
A great deal is often said nowadays about the environment. Americans are reminded that we must learn to be better stewards of the earth, preserving our forests and fossil fuel and purifying the air and water so that we will have something left for our grandchildren. There is something else we must also preserve, holding onto it and nurturing it for dear life, praying that we may pass it along as the most sacred of all legacies — the Catholic priesthood.
St. Padre Pio once said, “It would be easier for the world to exist without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
St. Pio speaks with his customary clarity, offering an analogy that is both shocking and obviously true. Without ordained priests to act in the person of Christ, we would have no Mass — we would have no confession for the forgiveness of our sins — and our world would be bleak indeed. Let us treasure the priesthood as the greatest gift humanity has to offer, praying for vocations and asking God to bless our families by calling our sons to the altar.
Twenty years ago, my grandmother lay dying. My mother and I stood at her bedside with a holy priest on hand to offer her the sacraments. Now, an impossibly short time later, it is my mother who is gravely ill, and a priest was there for her (not only the good priest from St. Boniface, but also her pastor, Father Jim Mannion). Someday all too soon, my time will come, as it did for the last two Alices before me, and I cannot help but wonder: Will my daughter — another Alice — be able to find a priest right outside the hospital?
The following afternoon, I returned to find my mother sleeping soundly. A nurse came in to check her IV and mentioned off-handedly, “Your mother had a visitor here earlier — a priest.”
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few — may the Lord of the harvest send forth more laborers … and may we never find ourselves without one of these chosen ones in our time of need.
This column was previously published in The Long Island Catholic
2010 Alice Gunther