Msgr. Steve Worsley, MD
It all started one summer, down South.
He had never owned an air-conditioned car. Or at least, not one in which the air-conditioning actually worked. He had always considered it an unnecessary luxury. Now he laughed at himself as he realized that had simply been the easy rationalization of an impoverished medical student living in Wisconsin. He had no idea how hot a southern city could be in August. It was hot. He was hot!
The idea of serving as a visiting fellow for a brief period at the medical center seemed like an excellent idea when his department chair first proposed it. After all, the oncology program there had a superb reputation and he was sure it would look good on his resume. Besides, he was learning a lot. But now he wondered if his department chair had also been indulging in a bit of social engineering — a desire to expand his student's cultural horizons. Until now, he had never lived anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Having agreed to do the "mini-fellowship" (it was actually more like an out-of-town rotation), the student called the parish church nearest the medical center to ask for suggestions about short-term housing. He was delighted when the pastor offered to let him bunk in the former convent, now a parish office building. At a hundred dollars a month, with secure parking and a quick bus hop to the hospital, it seemed like a no-brainer. Two weeks into July, he wondered. The wheezing air-conditioner down the hall competed with his studies for his attention.
One Saturday as he was studying in his room, he was interrupted by a sharp knock at the back door of the former convent. Opening it, he found a middle-aged woman standing on the steps. She had come to ask for food. He knew the parish operated a food pantry, but it was closed on weekends. After a moment's hesitation, he asked the woman to wait and shut the door. Scrounging around the pantry he filled a bag with food. He hoped the pastor wouldn't mind.
As he handed the groceries to the woman on the steps, he heard himself ask, "Would you do me a favor? Would you pray for Sharon? She has cancer. "He wasn't sure exactly what prompted him to ask, but Sharon had been on his mind a lot lately. At 22, she was young to have pancreatic cancer. It wasn't a good diagnosis.
Five weeks later he was focused on finishing his rotation and getting back to Wisconsin. He had learned a lot. August was hotter than July. Every window in his car was down. Yet as he waited for the red light to change, not a breath of air was moving. Suddenly, unexpectedly a woman stuck her head in the passenger window of his car. "How's Sharon?" she asked. He had no idea who this woman was or what she was talking about.
"How's Sharon?" she repeated. "I've been praying for her all month. How's she doing? "Finally the medical student remembered. The head sticking through the open passenger window of his car belonged to the woman who had come asking for food. The one he had asked to pray for Sharon. He had forgotten all about her. And after Sharon was discharged from the hospital, he had forgotten about her too. But this woman hadn't. She had remembered. It had never occurred to him that the woman would actually pray for his patient. In fact, he was never quite sure why he had asked for the prayers. He supposed he had just been distracted.
After the traffic light changed to green he never saw the woman again. But over the next dozen years, he never forgot her. As a young physician, he developed a habit of occasionally asking patients if they would pray for other patients.
Although he had never undertaken a scientific study, he found that most patients were happy to offer the prayers he requested. In fact, his patients with chronic illnesses seemed particularly pleased to be asked. He wondered if it gave them sense of purpose or empowerment to be able to do something for someone else.
In time he discovered the practice had an additional effect. It helped him see his nursing home patients as productive members of the community, people with something to give. He had never really thought of them in that way before.
A few patients even mentioned they were praying for him. Although he had never asked for prayers for himself, he did appreciate them. Actually that wasn't entirely true. Sometimes when caring for dying patients, he would ask them to "put in a good word for me when you get where you're going. "He figured it wouldn't hurt.
Most times when I read today's Gospel, I hear a promise of better things to come for those who are poor. But every so often I remember the woman who prayed for Sharon and those who pray for me. When I do, I know that many who suffer are already blessed. And I marvel at how generously they share their blessings with us when we think to ask.
May you be blessed today by God, and by all the saints around you!