When God Plans Your Life
(& I actually sometimes cooperate!)
People often ask me when I knew I wanted to become a priest. I tell them that I thought about it from the time I was in elementary school, even if I did not tell anybody. An opportunity to go to a Redemptorist minor seminary for high school helped confirm for me that this was something I wanted to pursue.
Then came the Second Vatican Council. It was exciting and somewhat disorienting to see the dramatic changes in the Church; but the crunch for me came when many of the priests who had taught me, and many other priests, left the priesthood. When I went to university, I was told to pick courses according to my interests in case I did not continue on to ordination. I chose chemistry and physics which I enjoyed immensely. But, after my degree, which pathway would I choose? With some encouragement from a wise priest I began work on a Master’s in philosophy. The secular stuff, though interesting and challenging, nearly killed me. But I never came to the point where I could say that God did not want me to be a priest.
So I arrived at theology and the words of Jeremiah have been mine ever since: “When I found your words, O Lord, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart.” Now I knew that God wanted me to be a priest. Two years in Toronto and two at our Redemptorist seminary in West Germany, where I actually learned German for the studies, put me on a life-long love affair with theology and Scripture.
I have never been a parish priest although I have worked in parishes all my life. I did formation work, youth ministry, preaching of retreats, helping in parishes (especially summer help or country assistance). Then I spent seven years preaching parish missions, with a wonderful team that included lay people, all across Western Canada. I learned the power of the preached word, how a return to the fundamentals of the faith renewed individuals and communities. I experienced the healing power of the confessional week after week. I also came close to burning out.
So, I asked my provincial for a little time to study or go on retreat. He responded by asking me to get a doctorate in moral theology, a particular specialty of the Redemptorists. I wrote a three-page letter to him and his council explaining why I thought that was a bad idea. There were few places to teach moral theology in Western Canada and I knew that all the positions were full; nor did I wish to make a career at some institution where I could not live in community.
After four years at the University of Notre Dame, where I received a superb education (and my 13 years of priestly experiences meant I approached moral theology both academically and pastorally), I got my doctorate and wondered, “Now what?” My provincial responded, “There are many Catholic hospitals where the sisters are really struggling with ethical issues. Go and see what you can do for them and with them.” I spent the next year visiting most of the Catholic hospitals and nursing homes in Western Canada while madly reading everything I could on medical ethics.
And then, blessedly, I actually hired on as a ‘clinical ethicist’ at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I listened to staff; I talked with patients and families; I did educational sessions at coffee breaks and day-long workshops. I learned about policies, organizational ethics, ethics committees and research ethics committees, government legislation, urban and rural healthcare issues, and particular applications of healthcare ethics such as ethics of nursing, of home care, of rehabilitation specialists, of physical/occupational therapy, of ICUs, of surgery, and, of course, ethics at the beginning and ending of life. I was consulted over the sixteen years I worked at St. Paul’s and across Saskatchewan in each of these fields, as well as such esoteric or challenging ones such as air ambulance (what do you do when you can’t fit the patient in the plane?), pediatric oncology (many difficult decisions for families), maintenance (do we fix something essential to a patient’s room, or follow the day’s orders?), and pharmacy.
I can assure anybody that there was seldom a dull day; and I actually enjoyed the challenge of a phone call (usually on Friday at 4:25 pm) that raised an issue for which no easy answer was available. I read and researched; I talked with specialists; I talked with other ethicists across the country. The doctorate that I could not imagine needing or using had opened a door to me that has been full of life, in the richest sense of that word, within the healing ministry of healthcare, Catholic and otherwise.
Did being a priest make any difference? For me it did. I learned about the healing ministry of the Church (Jesus commands his disciples to do the two things he does: Preach the Good News and heal the sick). I learned from amazing caregivers, whose instincts were always to be caring while providing skilled services but who also sometimes overlooked key components of healing (like hearing a patient) or simply could not figure out how to get to, or find, the ‘right’ answer to some dilemma. I can’t say I always got things right; but I never stopped learning. Or being amazed at what a thousand or two thousand skilled healthcare practitioners could do to bring healing to people, including the dying in palliative care. I feel blessed beyond anything I could have imagined.
I might add that I became known throughout the province as “Father Mark.” I was not a chaplain, but there were many occasions where my religious and spiritual background were indispensible. But if truth were to be told, I really only did two things well. I listened to the wisdom of the staff, patients and families and helped them think their way through tough decisions, most often to the point of being at peace despite the grey areas they faced. And then I affirmed the goodness, the right actions, the compassion and gentleness, the constant learning (of new and better ways to care for patients), the skills, the team work, and the wonder of modern medicine clothed with the compassion of the healing Christ (which I saw in public facilities as well as Catholic ones).
Today I am the provincial of the Redemptorists of English-speaking Canada and I am pretty much convinced that I am paying for my sins! Administration and overseeing the men and resources of our province are a task that needs to be done and God has asked me to do it. But I still slip into the world of healthcare and ethics whenever I get a chance. Very simply, it is a ministry that is simply life-giving
Mark Miller, email@example.com