Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fears of the Priesthood pt. 4

Fr. Brett Brannen's (if I just paid attention to the cover of the book, I'd know he's not named BANNEN as I've put in previous posts. Duh.) book, "To Save A Thousand Souls" has given me fodder for the blog over the past couple of weeks. I based my thoughts on this quote:

A man in this stage is assessing specific fears now: the fear of celibacy, the fear of not being a holy priest, the fear of loneliness, and the fear of preaching in front of people. (p 153)

The fear of celibacy was covered here. The fear of not being a holy priest was covered here. The fear of loneliness was covered here. There was a small interlude covering the fourth "fear" here.

Now we come to the two fears that I know I personally was concerned about: "the fear of not being able to deal with death and dying" and "the fear of economic insecurity". we go with

Even when I interviewed for the seminary, the concern that made me squirm and think "I'm not gonna be able to do this" wasn't about celibacy, obedience, the rigors of academics, the communal aspect of seminary or dealing with the public. It was dealing with DEATH AND DYING. At that time, I'd only experienced a few family funerals and deaths of some people I knew. I had never really lost anyone nor had I particularly thought myself as one who "reached out" to those who were going through a loss. So I knew sooner or later, death and dying would be something I'd deal with or it would deal me out.

SPOILER ALERT: I became a priest despite that awful doubt.

Here's what happened.
The Seal of Mundelein Seminary:
I can't read it 'cause they didn't teach Latin

1. MY SEMINARY TRAINED ME WELL: I went to Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago. Even though they, at the time, leaned more toward the experimental in theology, liturgy, religious formation and food (they made peanut butter soup one day), the pastoral education with the sick and dying was very good. It was good because they over-emphasized it. Every year, the seminary would put the seminarians in uncomfortable positions. I had to work with physically and mentally challenged adults one year. I had to go to a Buddhist temple to learn more tolerance. I had to sleep over a few weekends in inner city Chicago neighborhoods or rural Illinois farmer's homes. I thought the farmhouse experience was creepier. I was put up in the nice farm couple's daughters room. The daughter died and the room was her shrine so I was surrounded by her dolls. It was a full moon and a coyote was wailing outside. Sadly, that's about it for the spooky. All of these intensives (they were called that-"intensives"), were designed to push my buttons and tolerance levels. It was through all this that I found that, even though not perfectly, I can adapt and handle things that I don't particularly enjoy.
I still remember the doll room, though.

2. MY SEMINARY TRAINED ME WELL AGAIN: The seminary also saw to it that I got trained in two significant ways: A pastoral quarter (which is also discussed in Fr. Brannen's book) and CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education.
Pastoral Quarter: The end of my second year of theology was spent in a "Pastoral Quarter". I was sent back to the Diocese and assigned to Canton Sacred Heart and Canton's Holy Child Jesus. My task was to get as involved as I could with parish ministry. At the time, the parish also served rural Carthage Mississippi, so I had plenty of area to cover. There were several elderly people in the area and, sadly, some deaths. I was not only involved in the funeral planning but I actually KNEW those who died. I'd visited their homes or hospital rooms. I knew their families and so I was developing a sense of relationship with them. I learned to listen more than speak. I picked up cues from my pastoral supervisor, Fr. Pat Noonan on how to follow up with a death. Visit homes, make phone calls, remember anniversaries and so on.
And again, to listen rather than speak.
CPE: During my third year of theology, during the summer, I spent what seems like 3 months but I'm sure it wasn't that long working as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Memphis. Even though many of my classmates HATED IT, I think it was one of the best things I got out of my seminary training. It was hours of walking hospital floors, visiting rooms, talking to nurses, studying hospital rules and regulations, praying, writing, and meetings. COUNTLESS sessions of people asking, "HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?" or "WHOSE NEEDS WERE YOUR FILLING?". Then the freakin' crying and group hugs.

Yeah, it sounds awful. It was grueling but it was in that experience that I got to meet the GRIM REAPER for the first time. My first death was a doozy. Same day surgery, woman dies, the family is emotionally devastated, the doctor comes out and says, "I could have done one or two things for her. On second thought, I probably should have done the second thing." They almost took that guy's head off. Then the preacher from their church comes in and says, "She's not dead. I will raise her from her sleep!" Then I left. Later, I was called down to talk to the deceased woman's young, attractive, smokin' hot daughter who slipped me her digits and said that I should call her when I get back to Missisissippi. As I type this, I wonder if that was some elaborate set-up. Because there is SO much room for FAIL there. But I made it.
The secret? I listened more than spoke and if I spoke it was so I could listen more. Because me am not smart, I figured shutting my mouth and not saying what God is and is not doing or who's in Heaven would be the best tact.
But me smart enough to have thrown the phone number away.

3. DEATH IS INCONVENIENT: This is a truth. Death emerges anytime. We know not the day or the hour, thief in the night and all that. So when I was a newly oiled priest, when the call came, I just showed up and did what they wanted the priest to do. Pray and be there. I can do "be there" well. I stand. I hug. I put my arm around shoulders. I smile. I express sorrow. I leave. Then I call later. 
I've had to deal with everything from a husband calling in the early morning to ask for last rites for his dying wife to greeting a child to tell her a parent had just died. And everything between and beyond. I remember that we are ALL inconvenienced with death. And that means, we get a pass for not having it all together. I just show up with what the church wants their priest to do and try not to get my unprofessional all over people in the process.

I don't look forward to any deaths. Well, not MANY deaths. However, I consider myself ready when ever that call comes. Which leads me to:

4. PRAY  I do this thing. I pray. I get a call. I get in my car. I cut off the radio and pray. I pray a "Hail Mary". I do the Serenity Prayer. I pull out a "St. Michael". And I say, "Into your hands, I commend my Spirit". I can't say of what value it is one way or another but I've never had fear or doubts when I pray like that.

Now, following up with Death and Dying is another story. And it seems bandwidth is running thin so I'll take that up next time.