By Sr. Frances Smalkowski
My 13 years of collaborative ministry with Rev. Paul Francis Merry were incredibly memorable gifts. I can never thank God as I ought. But our work together came to an end when he died of cancer on July 15.
It was hard to witness Fr. Paul’s ongoing weakening from his illness, and to miss him in the ebb and flow of our pastoral ministry as the coronavirus took hold. But even as he was receiving chemotherapy, he tried to stay connected to our ministry through our telephone calls.
Through his last months, I tried to be present to him as he would want, but I struggled with letting him go from a distance. And distance was a similar problem for me at work, since I was only able to communicate with residents by phone, and many of them had no phone or were unable to use it.
But who could I talk with when Fr. Paul, my go-to person, was no longer available? Who to share my frustration with, besides with God in my daily prayer? I honestly did not even know I was asking myself this question when I found an answer. With the COVID-19 crisis, NACC initiated regular conference calls/Zoom meetings, and I felt drawn to participate. I found a place where I could share with other chaplains, be understood, and learn from them as this virus spread.
Though I joked about being addicted to the weekly calls, I did find them very meaningful and supportive. In no way did I feel alone from week to week as I tried to discern God’s will in all the confusion and regular changes of directives.
My chaplain colleagues were there for me not only through this coronavirus journey. They were present to me the very day of Fr. Paul’s death. I had hesitated to join the call on grief and self-care, but was grateful for the acceptance and caring that I received. If ever I had second thoughts about the value of virtual ministry, I certainly had a change of mind and heart through all the calls I was part of!
In the January 2007 issue of Vision, I reflected on the death and dying of Fr. Paul’s mentor, with whom I worked for 15 years. But those challenges were different – I was at least able to be involved with the residents as my priest-colleague was dying. Today, I can’t even visit on the units.
The change to virtual ministry to others, as well as to myself, is still in some ways mystifying to this old school chaplain. But I am grateful to Virginia Day and nurse-chaplain network for all their kind support; to Ramune Franitza for her sensitive and thoughtful messages; and to David Lichter for his shared memories of Fr. Paul Merry.
Sr. Frances Smalkowski, CSFN, BCC, PMHCNS-BC (retired) is currently director of pastoral care at St. John Paul II Center in Danbury, CT, where she has been ministering for 36 years in various positions.