Bishop Fulton Sheen once said “There is nothing more tragic in all of the world than wasted pain.”
This quote was related to me by Fr. Pio O’Connor, OFM, as we sat down in a little non-denominational chapel for an interview. In this quiet room on the first floor of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, Fr. Pio prepares his chaplain’s badge, stole and rosary beads – tools he’ll need as he makes the rounds to the sick rooms of patients.
He often finds himself returning to Sheen’s words during these visits, when suffering is torn from a concept or idea and given a living, breathing human face.
“We try to alleviate suffering – that’s what hospitals do – but sometimes we can’t,” Fr. Pio reflects. “So what the Church teaches is that we can take our suffering and unite it with the suffering on the cross, and then it becomes very powerful. It becomes a mighty prayer that can bless us, our families, and the whole world through uniting our suffering with Christ’s suffering. So I think the aspect of redemptive suffering is maybe what I’d like everybody to know – that suffering can be redemptive.”
It’s not an easy task, this call to redemptive suffering, but Fr. Pio is a veteran when it comes to messy, emotional situations. His first jump into the fray as a hospital chaplain come from an assignment to UNM Hospital in Albuquerque. This was no small-town institution, and it included a trauma ward where a priest could expect to be regularly called on at all hours of the day and night. The day-in and day-out efforts of comforting and ministering to patients with extreme injuries – and often their deaths – can take a very human toll on the priest. Fr. Pio recalls many of his colleagues, after the loss of a patient, who reported trouble sleeping.
He often volunteered to take over for priests who felt overwhelmed, noting, “I have a personality that can come into a crisis situation and just try to sense what’s going on and not panic myself.”
But one patient finally got to him – a young mother with two children. “I was asked to go in there – we would pray the rosary. And I would say to the Lord, ‘let me suffer and get her better’. She had a virus that went to her brain, and then she ended up dying. I remember going home and just started crying, you know? So you get to be affected by it.”
Even a practical, easygoing man like Fr. Pio needs a break from the stresses of hospital life, and for a few years this break came from a transfer to the Diocese of Gallup, as a school chaplain at St. Michael’s Indian School.
When a vacancy for a hospital chaplain came up, Fr. Pio was ready to return to the trenches, so to speak. The two hospitals in Gallup receive fewer patients than Albuquerque, but these have no less need of a priest.
At each visit to the hospital, Fr. Pio receives a list of Catholic patients – at the government-run Gallup Indian Medical Center, he is permitted by law only to visit Catholics. But sometimes the sight of his brown Franciscan robe is enough to catch someone’s attention.
“I was at the hospital the other day and I heard ‘Father, Father!’”, he recalls. “And I go in and they’re not even Catholic and I said ‘That’s okay’ and then we talked a little bit and we said a prayer. So I can pray with anybody.”
It’s immediately apparent that Fr. Pio is the type of man who loves conversation, capable of making friends with every person he meets. But in the back of his mind he tries to be cognizant of the role he represents, and sometimes that presents boundaries that suffering people may not want him to cross.
“I think everyone is vulnerable, because they’re sick. Of course I’ve gone to some rooms and I’ll say ‘I’m Fr. Pio, and would you like a visit?’ And 99% of the time there’s someone who says ‘yes, please’! But sometimes someone says ‘no, no, I don’t want a visit’. So I’ll say ‘Ok, God bless you!’ and walk out.” He laughs in a self-deprecating manner. “But then I’m always aware of them and praying for them, and I try to stop by and just say hi, and maybe they’ll change their minds and want to talk.”
His duties in the Diocese of Gallup also take him into nursing homes, and the houses of elderly or ill parishioners.
At one nursing home, a large recreation room pulls double duty as a makeshift chapel for morning Mass. A nurse sits in the back and keeps a watchful eye on the residents. She mouths along with the words of the “Our Father” as she fills out paperwork.
After Mass, Fr. Pio does not leave, but moves about the room, bending over to speak with each resident. Some are Catholic, some are not. Many are elderly Navajo, confined to wheelchairs, who speak English as a second language or not at all. Heedless of these barriers, Fr. Pio knows them each by name. If they as for a blessing, he gives it readily, placing his hands on their foreheads.
This is another challenge that he has tackled head-on: the language of a people that is virtually unknown outside the reservation. Fr. Pio first picked up some prayers in Navajo when he worked on the reservation many years ago, under the tutelage of Fr. Cormac Antram, the Franciscan who oversaw a Holy See-approved Navajo translation of the Mass. Since then, Fr. Pio has continued to learn, this time under a more modern method – a Rosetta Stone computer course.
Like so many of the Franciscans who have lived and served on the Navajo Reservation, Fr. Pio understands the significance and beauty of the native tongue.
“One time this lady told me that when she heard the words of consecration in Navajo she broke down in tears, because it’s her language,” he recalls.
After the nursing home and rounds at the hospital, Fr. Pio ends his day with a house call to an elderly woman with terminal cancer. He prays with her and administers the anointing of the sick and Holy Communion.
Earlier in the day, Fr. Pio told me “whether you’re at home or in the hospital, you’re cut off in a sense from the body of Christ. But if we bring the Lord to them, then they’re reunited with Christ.”
And indeed, even a casual observer could not help but note the lifting of the woman’s spirits during his visit. After their prayers are finished, they spend nearly half an hour chatting about books and football teams.
For most priests, the call to ministry requires a parish, a home base from which they minister to and look after their flock. But for Fr. Pio, the hospital, the nursing home, and the sick room are his parish, their ailing residents his sheep.
“These are people in crisis. You get in the hospital, you’re in a crisis,” he says. “You might be with somebody one day, you come back the next day and they’ve gone home. A lot of times there are two ways people can go. They either draw closer to the Lord, like ‘I need your help, Lord, please help me’ or ‘God’s punishing me’ and they turn bitter, and turn away from God. So we kind of want to bring them back, to say ‘no, you’re not being punished, we all go through things like this.’”
Each time you meet Fr. Pio – whether it’s the first time or the 100th – he gives a slight sign of the cross, a smile and a quick “God bless you!” It’s an almost instinctual action for someone who willingly accepts the burdens of the suffering each day.
And just as Bishop Fulton Sheen, now on the road to sainthood, once asked “Let my little cross be entwined with your great Cross”, so does Fr. Pio try to bring the comfort of God to his ailing charges.
“We’re physical people…the spiritual can bring healing to the physical,” he tells me. “Well now, you’re there with the Lord and He can help you get through this.”