Monday, October 7, 2013
The Parish Field Hospital
By Sister Mary Ann Walsh
Pope Francis is the master of metaphor. One of his best: the church is a field hospital. All of us have to surround the hurting with care, but the parish priest has a formal role of general practitioner. He heals hurts, salves spiritual wounds and suggests healthy living.
I asked some priests to explain their role and learned that the priest deals mostly with spiritual and emotional pain. He knows theology, but most issues he confronts center on human and spiritual relationships. Here are their responses.
Marriage problems are the most difficult. They are usually longstanding and, if emotional problems are involved, need professional attention. Equally difficult are concerns of parents whose children don’t practice the faith. They don't want to be nags but feel guilty about not doing something. They feel they have failed. The priest reassures them that they did their best and while an occasional gentle reminder is not out of place, they shouldn't push the issue to the point of alienation. They should pray and trust in God's grace to do the work. He tells those who feel God doesn't hear them that some the great saints (and Blessed Mother Teresa) had the same experience. He talks to the unforgiving about how forgiveness is rarely easy but Jesus emphasized how important it is by including in the Our Father a petition asking for forgiveness as we have forgiven others.
The toughest problem is scrupulosity, which makes some people think everything they do is sinful. They can't be convinced that God is a forgiving God. They simply can't trust in God's mercy. It's usually a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Another priest noted that people go to a priest with almost every conceivable malady. Some situations are acute: marriage breakup, terminal disease, loss of loved one (most difficult: loss of child, spouse, someone through suicide), hitting bottom with alcohol or drug addiction, worry about a family member or friend. Some wonder what to do in life or feel a general malaise about where God is leading them. Some problems are chronic: loneliness, lack of purpose, bitterness and anger, and struggle with one of the deadly sins.
The priest brings wisdom from life experience and the balm of Christ. Priests have had doctors tell them they bring to healing what a doctor can’t. A good priest confidently and humbly brings Christ to the table.
Ninety percent of the job of doctor of the soul is to listen and let people know God loves them no matter what. When Pope Francis talks about healing wounds and warming hearts, he adds: “It needs nearness, proximity.”
People often seek out a priest when going through a divorce or dealing with a just finished divorce or the loneliness that follows one. People look to a priest when they are trying to negotiate relationships: parent to child; child to parent; adult to elderly parent; employee to boss or coworkers. Some ask how to be less selfish or more charitable. Some struggle with sin (pornography, chastity, for example) or with problems within such as bitterness, anger, lack of discipline, laziness. People seek a priest when they are depressed and feel helpless or trapped. Sometimes they are struggling with the death of someone close. Sometimes they’re angry at God, the Church or a particular person or Church teaching. Some want financial help. Some want advice on dealing with sexual orientation. Some ask how they can get more involved with their faith or contribute more to help the poor.
People seek the “remedies” of the Sacraments: pardon and forgiveness (Reconciliation), healing (Sacrament of the Sick), mission/vocation (Marriage), and the grace of the Eucharist. People also look for help in discerning God’s will not just in the big vocational questions but in the day-to-day attempts to follow Jesus.
Thankfully, the field hospital is there for us all.