I talked to our priest chaplain. “Father, I have a problem.”
He turned and smiled.
“How do Catholics know when I’m done praying for them.”
I don’t always inflict prayer on people. That’s how I describe it. Other chaplains are quick to offer to pray for people. I’m comfortable with them being comfortable. I tend to wait, to listen, to offer presence, to offer coffee. I look for clues. I look in the chart where there might be a reference to religious connections. I ask sometimes if people are part of a congregation.
Sometimes my instincts and observation (and the electronic medical record) indicate that a patient is Catholic. And I start to think through what the best support is that I can offer them.
I’m not a novice in Catholic conversations. My best friend in grade school was Catholic. My dissertation research took me deep into the documents of the Second Vatican Council. My academic career took me to a Catholic University for a few years as an administrator.
When I started as a chaplain, I was comfortable asking patients and families who I knew were Catholic if they would like a prayer. I told them that our priest chaplain and I had prayed for each other’s patients. They always smiled. They bowed solemnly. I prayed. I often noticed some tears.
And nothing happened
I don’t mean that I was expecting miracles and trumpets and angels. I mean that the patient or family members didn’t move, didn’t look up. I wondered if I needed to say, “Amen” louder.
Hence my question.
“Say, ‘Through Christ our Lord,’” my friend priest chaplain said. “That’s what they are used to.”
I wrote that down on my clipboard, the one I carry with me into every room, every time. It’s there with the 23rd Psalm, the coroner’s number, and other things I want to remember. It wasn’t as if I had to make a big jump from the “In Jesus name” ending I learned as a child. But I wanted to get it right.
And it worked. The next time I prayed for a Catholic patient, I ended with “Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” A couple family members crossed themselves (genuflected) and everyone looked up and thanked me for coming.
One night, we didn’t know whether or not a patient was Catholic. The message from the nurse was confusing, the patient’s condition was worsening, and we wanted to provide the appropriate care, spiritual and emotional. My priest friend chaplain was already in the building and so we talked.
“We’ll both go,” he said. “If she’s Catholic, I’ll stay. If she’s not, you stay. And I’ll pray as I’m walking back down the hallway.”
As we walked through the Intensive Care Unit, side-by-side, purposeful, chatting, I smiled. I felt like some kind of God-squad, ready to cover the patient with the blessing of God in terrifying moments. We approached the nurse as the soundtrack faded. She stepped in and asked the family members. She came back out.
I can’t remember whether or not we fist-bumped, my friend who is a priest and a chaplain and I. I think it was more of a nod and a smile.
“I’ll pray,” he said as he walked away.
“Thanks,” I said as I walked into a room with a dying patient.
Why does it matter so much to me to get it right with Catholic patients? to pray when I can, to get a priest as soon as possible when they ask for one, or when they cannot?
It’s because I do not despise the sacraments.
That’s a strange way to say it, I know. I’m guessing that no chaplain would say that they despise the symbolism of a patient. But for my brothers and sisters who are Catholic, the wine and bread are the very body of Christ. The oil of anointing at the time of grave illness is the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, the obedience to the words of James, the brother of Jesus to call for the elders and anoint the sick with oil. The confession of sins is right there in James with the anointing.
For some, the body and blood and oil and words are magic formulas. But for some, they are the very presence of God. It’s possible, of course, that the grace is not in the elements but in the one who carries them in, who carries the presence of God as a person to a person. It’s not up to me know know which patient correctly understands their own theology. In moments of extreme pain, extreme anxiety, approaching death, most of us don’t correctly understand our theology. But it is an opportunity to serve them well.
Demitri was dying. His friend knew it. And his friend Edwin knew, as we did not, that Demitri had been baptized as a Catholic as a baby.
Edwin and Dimitri had known each other six decades ago, had connected again a couple decades ago. Edwin knew that Dimitri had no one that would still talk to him, mostly except Edwin. And now me.
I talked with Dimitri a little, though he was a hard person to talk with. Both his mind and his body were failing him. I did ask if he wanted a priest. He agreed. I prayed (“through Christ our Lord”), thanked the nurse, and went to call our priest.
He came, talked as best he could, anointed Dimitri in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit.
A couple days later, his nurse paged us. “He’s not doing well. We’ll be removing the breathing support. Would you come and pray with him?”
Dimitri was not doing well. His eyes wandered and then shut. His body systems were not working, even with the best support. I decided to sit with him. I prayed. I held his arm. We waited for the next steps.
And then I remembered that Dimitri, wherever he had been, however relationships had been broken, whatever had happened, had grown up Catholic.
“Dimitri,” I said. “Do you remember the Our Father?”
“Would you like to pray with me?”
“Our Father,” I said. I watched his lips moving through the plastic of the BiPAP mask.
“Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” I watched his lips moving.
I think that he stopped following shortly after trespasses. At least his lips stopped moving as much. I finished. And sat with him awhile longer.
It was his last spoken prayer, said in the waning moments of consciousness. It was a moment of remembering what I often say, that Jesus gave us training wheels for our prayer when we are unable to find the words ourselves. And it was a moment of sharing spiritual care with my brother priest. We cared for him to the end, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
- It's in James 5. ↵