Ecumenism in a Time of CancerDec 23rd, 2013 | By Casey Chalk | Category: Blog Posts
Both of my parents grew up in large baby-boomer Catholic families. My father, the eldest of five, traded Catholicism for the “hippy” lifestyle, though he spent some of those wayward years getting drunk with Catholic priests at Auburn University, which I suppose reflects some continued connection to the Church. My mother, also one of five, grew up in a household where Catholic practice was defined by duty, a duty largely focused on complaining about the the Second Vatican Council. Both my parents found Christ in the resurgent Evangelicalism of the 1970s and 1980s. When I was born, they raised me Catholic to please their parents. After my First Communion, they promptly left, seeking a Christianity that would nourish their souls and provide their son with the kind of spiritual fulfillment they had found in Evangelicalism. It worked – by senior year of high school I was excited about church, reading the Bible, and sharing the gospel.
My subsequent reversion to the Catholic Church when I was 26 years old came as quite a shock to my parents, who had invested considerable effort teaching me the errors of Catholicism. I had been active in evangelical ministries, participated in domestic and international missions trips, joined a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation, and was almost half-way through a seminary degree at Reformed Theological Seminary. My father told me the decision to become Catholic was “rash,” and belittled my explanations as “logic games.” My mother feared any future Catholic grandchildren would be disconnected from her, and expressed her particular frustration with the Dominican priest who had ‘lured’ me back to the Church. “I’m very angry with that priest,” she said.
Over time my parents softened to my conversion, realizing that my spiritual fervor remained, if somewhat modified and redirected. They were distraught by some Reformed reactions to my conversion, particularly those who claimed I was no longer a Christian. In a strange twist of fate, my parents found themselves defending Catholicism to their Protestant friends, my dad explaining Catholic devotions such as statues and the stations of the cross. My conversion had apparently awoken in them a radar for the latent anti-Catholicism in contemporary Evangelicalism, and they found it distasteful. “Weren’t we all still Christians?” they asked, seeking a deeper spirit of ecumenism.
When I married my wife Claire, a cradle Catholic, my parents celebrated with sincere joy at our thoroughly Catholic wedding, and rejoiced months later when we announced my wife’s pregnancy. The joy of that summer was unfortunately tainted by sad news in the Fall when my parents announced a cancerous tumor would be removed from my father’s bladder. It was a very customary procedure, they assured us, and there was no reason to be alarmed. But the new year brought more bad news: there were more tumors in the bladder, the entire organ might be cancerous. Chemotherapy would be needed. Even then, they seemed at ease, optimistic that my father’s strength would beat any medical problem. This was the man who had served as a medic in the Vietnam War, earned black belts in Tae Kwan Do, excelled at a dozen sports, and recovered from a score of other surgeries. He had smoked since high school.
My dad did not react well to the chemotherapy, and lasted only a few sessions. His body, which I had always viewed as impenetrable, was deteriorating quickly. The doctors discovered cancer in his prostate. He was discharged into hospice care, and told that he had maybe a couple months to live. He was in an incredible amount of pain. My wife, meanwhile, was more than seven months pregnant. Yet amidst all of this uncertainty and grief, my family would hear the call to deeper spiritual unity with Christ, a unity that would bridge the gaps in our relationships and religious convictions. This would require, as the Catholic Catechism of the Church (CCC) teaches, “a conversion of the heart,” “fraternal knowledge of each other,” “prayer in common,” dialogue, and collaboration.1 My dad’s struggle with death would become a great victory for ecumenism.
The first surprise came from members of my former PCA congregation, from which I had been removed from membership after my reversion to the Catholic Church. My parents had also attended this PCA congregation before my conversion, and my removal from membership there prompted their return to a non-denominational church. Yet as word spread that my father was dying of cancer, the Presbyterians showed up in force. Members came with flowers, food, and of course their Bibles and hymnals. They greeted us all with compassion and rejoiced at my wife’s pregnancy. Some of them had been my father’s patients, while others liked his eccentric personality. What they all shared was a love that could overlook the differences between the Reformed faith, Evangelicalism, and Catholicism. One elder practically carried my father’s body down the stairs when hospice installed a bed on the first floor. They exemplified what Saint Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:8, “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (RSV). My father responded with deep gratitude, joyfully accepting the prayers and encouragement of all who came to visit, and requesting they recite the personalized “Our Father” prayer he had drafted while in the hospital.2
A close friend of mine, another Catholic convert, came to visit. Much to my surprise, my father earnestly asked my friend, a Ph.D. candidate in moral theology at a Catholic university, if his personalized “Our Father” prayer was doctrinally sound. He wanted to know if it would pass Catholic muster. My friend offered a few minor adjustments, and my dad was comforted that he had composed an ecumenical supplication that could be accepted by Protestant and Catholic alike. They had, in that brief moment, shared a moment of true ecumenical dialogue.
As things got worse, I started to reflect on the inevitable. My father had been instrumental in my faith and development as a Christian. I had learned many virtues from his character, including reverence, patience, and forgiveness. Yet I believed his Christian faith to be lacking the fullness offered in the Eucharist and the Catholic Church. I asked him once on a fishing trip if he had ever believed that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist: body, blood, soul, and divinity. He reflected, and matter-of-factually concluded, “no, I don’t suppose I ever did.” He once expressed his concern with the sacramentals of the Catholic faith: holy water, scapulars, and rosaries, or “magic beads,” as he called them. I tried to explain that the objects were not holy in-and-of-themselves, but only in-as-much as they were empowered by the grace of God, similar to the bronze serpent Moses held aloft in Numbers 21. My father simply reiterated his position: such objects could have no spiritual significance, only the grace of God mattered.
Hesitating to overstep fragile spiritual boundaries that had preserved the peace between us, I still felt a deep responsibility for my father’s spiritual welfare in his final days. He had been baptized and raised Catholic. He was, in the Church’s eyes, still Catholic, even if non-practicing. I wanted to put a priest in front of him – to give him the chance to make his peace with the Church if he so desired. I remembered a priest who had been a patient of my father’s, and whom my dad had subsequently contacted for input on a book he wanted to write about a Catholic priest-turned-detective (he had many unfulfilled goals). After many phone calls, I finally located the priest, who agreed to come visit. I told my father the priest would be coming, not knowing how he would react.
The priest arrived a few days later. His methods were a bit unorthodox: other visitors had been hesitating, quiet, and sober; this priest was loud, boisterous, and resolute, interacting with my father like he would a buddy on the gridiron or in the bar. While others had expressed a calm restraint in interacting with my father, this priest expressed little, and immediately began admonishing my father like some kind of circuit preacher. My whole body tensed up, anticipating some severe reaction from my dad. Instead, he calmly and simply said, “Father, I’m in a lot of pain right now, would you mind if you just prayed the ‘Our Father’ with me?” The priest agreed; afterward, he asked my father if he might want to say his confession. I scoffed with incredulity. My father, without hesitation, said he would. In a confused rush, I excused myself from the room. A few moments later, the priest’s face appeared from behind the door; he told me to get some olive oil so he could perform Last Rites. In a few moments, my father had received two sacraments. The priest asked my dad if he wanted to receive the Eucharist on Sunday; my dad accepted. The priest left as quickly as he had come. I stood dumbstruck next to my father’s bed. Was my dad in communion with the Church again? I tried to apologize, telling my father that this was not what I had envisioned. He just closed his eyes with a look of confidence and self-satisfaction. “You got what you wanted, didn’t you?” he said. I confessed I wasn’t sure what I got, that I was very sensitive to his own religious convictions. He told me not to worry.
Weeks before, my father had told my mother that he no longer wished for a miracle to heal his body; the miracle, he said, had happened in his heart. His own “conversion of heart” had opened him up to grace from the most unexpected of places. When I had become Catholic, I had accepted the doctrine of “ex opere operato,” and acknowledged that sacraments were efficacious regardless of the status or intentions of the celebrant.3 I had not thought I would experience such an unusual demonstration of the teaching. The priest returned that Sunday for Holy Communion. It was a strange thing, receiving communion with my dad under such circumstances. I feared for my mother, who was understandably a bit perplexed and looking shell-shocked. I didn’t want to cause more grief or strain for her through this whole experience, even if I was excited for my father to receive grace from the sacraments.
I was in for more surprise a few days later when my mother and I sat beside his bed. “Daniel,” my mother asked, “are you a Catholic now?” My father said no, that he was still a“born-again Christian.” I reminded him that he had participated in confession, last rites, and the Holy Eucharist. Why had he done all of that? “I’m dying, Casey. I’ll take grace wherever I can get it,” he explained. Soon thereafter he went into a semi-conscious state, after which there no were no more conversations.
I decided to call the Dominican priest who had been so influential in my own conversion. I feared that the actions of the previous priest, despite their great benefit, might have created a new tension in my family. Although the Dominican lived more than an hour away and was in the midst of a busy semester teaching graduate courses, he offered to come at once. “I know how to be nice,” he assured me. He arrived the next day. He was attentive and gracious to my mother, showing a true pastoral sensitivity in his sympathy and attentive ear. He offered to pray with us and over my father, and once again to administer last rites. My mother accepted, and thanked him for coming such a long way to see us. Through two very different means, the Church had brought Christ and fraternal care to my family, deepening our spiritual unity in imperceptible ways.
Shortly thereafter an aunt and an uncle who was an elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, moved into the house, bringing my elderly Catholic grandmother with them. My mom and I were exhausted from the emotional and physical labor involved in caring for my father and needed help. They posted night watch over my father as his body, now almost a skeleton, wasted away. They held hands and prayed over him. My uncle read the Psalms to him. Many people came to visit during the day. I don’t remember all of them, friends from many walks of life; but I know that there were Presbyterians and Baptists; Evangelicals and mainline Protestants, as well as Catholics. Despite our many and serious differences, all came to pray, to serve, and to love. And yet my father lingered in what can barely be called life, far beyond what the doctors or nurses had predicted.
One night we retired to our rooms while my extended family took the night shift. When I awoke the next morning, my uncle greeted me at the bottom on the stairs. “He’s gone,” he choked, as held back tears. My mother and I gathered around his cold body, stroking his hair, kissing his forehead, holding his hand. A pastor from my parents’ church arrived to make arrangements for the funeral service. I had already prepared a eulogy for my father, faithful to his life and Christian witness, yet, I hoped, fully compatible with my own Catholic convictions. We discussed the music, all Protestant hymns that could be found in a Catholic hymnal. I called one of my best friends, a devout Methodist, to lead music for the funeral service. He gladly agreed.
The funeral service was held in a large multi-purpose conference room at the evangelical mega-church, with hundreds of fold-out chairs and a small stage. That bleak, colorless and thoroughly ordinary place was in no way sacred; as a place it seemed less than fitting for honoring the dead. The bulletins for the service featured a picture of my father. It said we were “celebrating” his life. We were celebrating? Death had taken my father well before his time, before the birth of his first grandchild. His death had been agonizing, painful, and wretched; his healthy body were reduced to skin and bones like a concentration camp victim. My family was in mourning. There was no celebration here, nothing that could obscure the loss, the suffering, the mystery of death. Death is terrible through and through, and no turn of phrase could change that.
The ceremony was still a moving one. My Methodist friend with the deepest sincerity sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” while scripture readings and reflections were offered by Evangelicals, Presbyterians, and Catholics alike, all sharing “prayer in common.” After the service my mother and I stood and thanked the long line of visitors who had come to pay their respects. Among the many visitors was my Dari tutor, a first-generation Afghan Muslim, donned in black, with his wife, also in black, wearing the customary hijab. He asked when we would be leaving to bury my father’s body (according to Islamic custom, the body should be buried soon after death). I explained that his body had been cremated, and that the burial probably would not happen for some time. He was taken aback; even though he had never met my father, he had come to mourn with me. In that moment I realized that even he and I, Catholic and Muslim, were sharing a moment of confusion and frustration with the way American culture deals with loss. In death there was room even for shared suffering with Muslims, those included in the “plan of salvation” who “profess the faith of Abraham,” and who together with Christians “adore the one, merciful God.”4
As I looked around and saw Catholics, Evangelicals, Reformed and Mainline Protestants, I saw the beautiful ecumenism that my father’s death had fostered. From the hospital to the hospice bed, in his death and in his memorial, love had for a moment overcome doctrinal and theological disagreements to embody the “the reconciliation of all Christians.”5 People had seen Christ in each other, and they had seen Christ in themselves. We were all united in our war against death. Many of us knew that only Christ could grant us the victory, who “transcends human powers and gifts.”6 In his last days, my father had made evangelism and the call to Christ his final calling, “a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.”7 Though my father’s place in Christ’s Church remained to me a mystery, he fulfilled that calling.
Eight months removed from that day, my family and I will spend our first Christmas without my father. He will not be there to hold his first grandchild Annemarie Frances, born the day after his funeral and named after his middle name and confirmation saint: St. Francis of Assisi. I’ll miss that annual hunting trip we’d take after Christmas, where we’d sit out in the cold all morning looking for deer, only to come home empty handed. (I shot my first deer this December, with my dad’s .308.) My mother will spend her first Christmas with her first granddaughter, whom she showers adoringly with gifts, but without her husband of thirty-three years. For those of us who were there with my father in his last moments, we will assemble to celebrate the holiday and worship together: Catholic and Protestant, Evangelical and Presbyterian. In our shared experience, our fraternal knowledge of one another, prayer in common, and collaboration, we will find new ways to love and live, even amidst true doctrinal differences. In this holiday, in our family, the calling that my father lived and died for will live on.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 821. [↩]
- The Lord’s Prayer, according to Daniel Chalk: Our Father who art in heaven, our Lord and Creator who resides in the highest of all places. Hallowed be thy name which is holy sacred and exalted in all your true children, who know your voice and your glory. Thy kingdom come which we all await in eager anticipation of your glory. Thy will be done which we know and respect through your holy word and desire to fulfill your righteous commands as your humble servants. On earth as it is in heaven both in this world and in the next, doing your will wherever we are. Give us this day our daily bread, our personal daily needs and requirements to live and function as your children in faith. Forgive us our trespasses, for we are a sinful, disobedient race, totally dependent on your grace, unconditional love and mercy. As we forgive those who trespass against us so that we may be a reflection of your love, mercy, and forgiving grace and that we may be deserving of your forgiveness and mercy. But we still hold offenders responsible and accountable for their actions. Lead us not into temptation so that the paths we follow are in the ways of righteousness. But deliver us from evil protecting us from the advances and attacks of the adversary, and from paths of disobedience and unrighteousness. For thine is the glory and power forever for we are totally dependent on your eternal grace and place our faith on your holy word, love, and the sacrifice of your resurrected son, our Lord Jesus Christ who is one with you and the Holy Spirit and who has restored our justification and relationship with you forever. Amen. [↩]
- CCC 1128 [↩]
- CCC 842. [↩]
- CCC 822. [↩]
- CCC 822. [↩]
- CCC 820. [↩]