Conquering the mountain

Friday, October 26, 2018 - Updated: 8:38 am

By Father Richard S. Jones

In May, I got a jump-start on my new appointment for the On Mission for The Church Alive! initiative. Rather than wait until October to change assignments, I was asked to start immediately on a second tour of duty as a full-time hospital chaplain at UPMC Mercy, the oldest hospital in Pittsburgh.

Notre Dame Sister Melannie Svoboda, a dear and longtime friend, sent me a card reminding me to be patient in this time of transition and “to see Christ in everyone and to be Christ to everyone.” Each person along our path teaches us new lessons. In a fast-paced world that constantly hits the fast-forward button, Sister Melannie encouraged me to hit the pause button.

She was giving me wise counsel. I soon experienced how hitting the pause gave me proper perspective. We are all pilgrim people who travel through varied landscapes throughout our lives, relying on the Spirit to guide us. Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand mountaineer, explorer and philanthropist (1919-2008) once said: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” We must be responsible for our own feelings, our own decisions, our own actions and our own lives. Returning to UPMC Mercy was a reminder of that, in so many ways.

Mercy Hospital was founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Mercy from Dublin, Ireland. I am inspired by Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley (1778-1841), who founded the Sisters of Mercy with a mission to welcome the stranger and to heal the sick. She once said, “Small acts of service and of virtue are daily within our reach.”

It was important to remember that as I received word of my new assignment. It meant letting go of the familiarity of a parish setting, a network of family relationships, and letting go of a decade of pastoring. I needed to search within in order to set out on a new path with a new spirit, new vision and new hope. As I have tried to do throughout my priesthood, I chose to view this new challenge as an opportunity for growth in wholeness and holiness.

But my new post has also surprised me with the joys of daily living in this new location. I work just a few blocks from the home of my favorite sports team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. As an avid runner, I enjoy the artificial turf field of my alma mater, Duquesne University. In the morning, looking out my living room window, I feel richly blessed to see the sunlight come up over our beautiful city of Pittsburgh.

In my new ministry, I feel fortunate to work with the spiritual care team and pastoral care volunteers at the hospital. I encounter and accompany wonderful people among patients, staff and volunteers. I learn from them, even as I offer guidance, and they inspire me. There is a 106-year-old man who comes each week to deliver the Pittsburgh Catholic to the patients.

Hospital ministry is pastoral ministry at its finest, and I am feeling more and more at home each day. I meet people from all walks of life — various income levels, ages, ethnic heritages, intellectual capabilities, cultures, races, religions and zip codes. The hospital environment breaks down barriers, exposes vulnerabilities and reveals our wounds.

Serving as a hospital chaplain allows me to embrace a corporal work of mercy to care for the sick and a spiritual work of mercy to comfort the sorrowful in my everyday life. These works are so important to humanity that God gives people of many faiths and outlooks the grace to do them, even when they may not recognize that the grace and the call come from him. In our Spiritual Care Department, we have seminarians and deacon candidates who do their apostolic work in our facility. Mentoring the seminarians, I ask them to consider the question: “How can I be a healing presence in this particular situation?” One cannot underestimate the power of presence.

Being sick is no fun — one is often anxious and fearful and many times in pain. Sickness is a burden and a cross to carry, and people even ask “Where is God in human suffering?”

Suffering identifies us most fully with the crucified Lord. However, our Christian lives are not a narrative of Good Friday only — one of hopelessness, fear and despair. Easter joy proclaims a narrative of transformation, restoration and salvation. A meaningful life is filled with victories and defeats, ups and downs, joys and sorrows. Let us remember that when we are sick, when we are challenged, when we are faced with changes we are tempted to resent.

Let us pray for our bishops, priests, deacons, parish leaders and communities in this time of transition that the Spirit will bring new life, new hope and new beginnings!

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