If a priest is a fisher of men, I had a beauty of a catch just a few days ago. Here’s my tale.
A parishioner of mine called and said her Uncle John from Las Vegas recently had major brain surgery in Phoenix. The doctors removed the tumor, but the biopsy revealed that the cancer was the most aggressive the hospital had ever seen. Treatment was useless. They had not yet told John the tragic news but he wanted to see a priest – He wasn’t Catholic.
That’s when things got interesting for me. I walked into the hospital room and laying there was a middle-aged man. He had a fresh five-inch scar stapled shut on his shaved head. He opened his eyes and smiled at me.
“Father, I’m so happy to see you.”
With amazing clarity and directness he told me that the night after the surgery he had a vivid dream. He was fighting in a war. The enemy was closing in. He tried to fire his weapon but had no ammunition. On the verge of panic, a soothing voice spoke to him in the depths of his heart.
“Son, you’ve done enough. I’ve got it from here.”
John paused his story. He locked his gaze on me. I leaned in close. He said in a whisper suggesting surprise and joy: “He called me ‘Son’!”
I smiled at him, now with tears in my eyes. He continued, “When I woke up, I just knew I had to become a Catholic. Clearer than I’ve ever known anything. It was like a veil had been lifted.”
I told him, “John, God promised you something last night, and he won’t make you wait long to make good on it. Tonight’s your night.”
With his wife and a few others around his hospital bed, I baptized and confirmed him. I gave him his first Holy Communion. By now everyone had tears in their eyes, though I couldn’t tell you if it was mostly from joy or sorrow.
Then it dawned on me: “This may be his last Holy Communion, too.” So I included the prayers for “Viaticum,” i.e., when someone receives the Eucharist prior to death as “food for the journey.” I topped it off by anointing his head and hands with the Sacrament of Anointing and prayed for his healing and strength. After a brief celebration, we all shared hugs and kisses and I exited the hospital room.
As I drove home in silence, I was deeply moved with a feeling of gratitude and awe. The sheer joy and peace of this man…so strong, calm, pure. What were the countless experiences in John’s life that led to that dream and the subsequent ‘yes’ he gave to God when he woke up?
How fortunate was I to be the priest who got to be there at that moment?
The image struck me of a father who catches a fish and reels it in right up to the edge of boat, and lets his small son bring the fish aboard to experience the joy of the catch. I felt like that son.
What struck me, too, was how many people were involved who John didn’t even know. When I got the call, I tweeted a request for prayers for him. It was viewed over 27,000 times, and I received more replies than I could read in which people said they were praying for him. It was amazing ministering to a man knowing that people all over the country were learning about him and praying for him at that very moment. Social media and the sacraments working in harmony.
I’ll never forget what it was like to witness a radically open heart fusing with the full force of the Church’s sacramental grace on a cool Phoenix winter evening. It was staggeringly beautiful.
But the one moment I’ll remember best was when John looked at me from his hospital bed, with his life in the balance, and said with sheer delight the one thing that mattered: “He called me ‘Son.”