6/23/2011 5:58:00 AM SEMINARIAN'S DIARY Facing discouragement in ministry
BY SCOTT VANDERVEER
I learned on my first day visiting patients in the hospital during my seminary internship that not everyone was glad to have me there.
I entered the room of a woman in her 70s who was sitting up in her bed in a sweatsuit. An adult woman - perhaps her daughter - was knitting contentedly in the chair next to the bed.
I mustered my courage and a smile. "Good morning," I said. "My name is Scott and I work in the chaplain's office. I was wondering how you were feeling today."
The woman told me that she was feeling better than she had been and that the doctor had informed her that she would be going home either that day or the next. She chatted pleasantly with me for a few moments, while the woman in the chair half-listened. Then she turned the conversation to me.
"So, what do you do in the chaplain's office?" she asked.
I told her that I was a seminarian studying to be a Catholic priest and as part of my training I was a pastoral care intern at the hospital. Halfway through my sentence, her face hardened.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave, please."
I didn't see this coming. A sickening feeling washed over me. Not expecting sudden rejection, my eyes darted to the woman in the chair.
She scrunched up her nose in discomfort over the awkwardness of the situation and silently mouthed, "I'm sorry."
"I understand," I managed to say in bewilderment as I backed out of the room. "Have a good day."
The truth was, I didn't fully understand what had just happened. When she thought I was a staff chaplain, she was glad to see me. As a seminarian, she wanted me out.
It could be that she is not Catholic. This is possible, but unlikely. The hospital is in a 90-percent-Catholic town and most of the patients I met were Catholic.
Because the hospital, like my seminary, is in the Boston area, there are lots of reasons she may have had hard feelings about priests or the Church. Perhaps she has some personal connection to the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Boston Archdiocese harder than any other diocese in the country.
Perhaps she was hurt by the decision to close a particular church in the Boston parish reconfiguration process. Unlike the "Called to be Church" process in Albany, which gathered input from literally thousands of parishioners in the diocese over a long period, the Boston closures in 2004 came suddenly and without warning.
The process offended many people. Two parishes near the hospital that were selected to close had been occupied by protestors, and there were a number of other parishes around the archdiocese being occupied as well. (Some occupations have been going on nonstop for seven years and continue to this day.)
I will never know why this woman asked me to leave her room, but I do know that I learned even more from that experience than I would have if she pinched my cheeks and sent me off with her blessing.
My job as a priest will be to help people find ways to realize their connectedness to God - and then get out of the way.
Pope John Paul II once wrote that priests need to be "bridges and not obstacles" between people and Christ. Bridges have an important purpose as tools to get to a destination, but they are not attractions in and of themselves. The destination is Christ, not the priest.
I'll admit that I love approval and enjoy being welcomed and fussed over; but if I minister to people in order to meet my own needs, I'm going to be a lousy priest.
Clearly, something has happened in the life of the woman I met in the hospital - perhaps a serious hurt or relatively small offense, maybe an old grudge. Whatever it was, it was not about me.
The fact that she was not open to me does not mean that she is closed to God. Perhaps my shocked attempt to be humble and defenseless will make her more open to share her hurt more openly the next time a priest comes her way.
A priest friend bought me the book "From Seminarian to Diocesan Priest" by Rev. Ronald Knott, which addresses the disappointment priests can face when their ministry is not appreciated or they face rejection.
Knott urges us to thicken our skins and suggests that we ought to measure ourselves not by our accomplishments, but by how much it takes to discourage us.
If we lose heart whenever someone frowns at us, we are forgetting how many bad days Jesus Himself had in his ministry. Jesus would come to town to heal the sick and before He could finish the words of a blessing, people would be trying to shove Him off a cliff.
The Gospels show us that Jesus, being human, felt all the emotions that we do - but there is not a single passage in the Bible about Jesus going off alone to feel sorry for Himself after being mistreated.
Jesus was not a pouter. He had a job to do and He knew that self-pity was not going to help Him do it.
All of us - priests and laity alike - must keep turning to the Gospels to learn from Jesus how to love without getting tired. The advice Jesus gave His Apostles about shaking the dust from their sandals sounds easy, but in real encounters, it takes discipline and humility.
If I want to measure up to the example of Jesus, I need to keep the focus on others - and remember to keep well away from the edge of the cliff.
(Scott VanDerveer is a seminarian studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Albany at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. He formerly taught religion at St. Pius X School in Loudonville.)