Father Ignatius was often faced with very difficult situations where his advice, however well-meant, would mean more pain and distress to the individual who came to him for help. It was a very thin line he had to tread as a priest between giving practical friendly advice and yet keeping within the strict rules of the Church and, more important, obeying God’s Word.
One day Mr Clements had come to see him for advice. He and his wife were regulars at Saint Vincent Church and even helped on the church committee when needed. But then, one day some six months ago, Mrs Clements was hit by a car and left in a coma in hospital. The accident devastated the whole family, especially Mr Clements who loved his wife very much. He nearly suffered a mental breakdown as a result and was nursed back to health by his two daughters; both married and with families of their own.
Eventually, slowly day by day, he regained his health and visited his wife in hospital on a daily basis. He sat by her bedside and just talked to her about this and that. No one knew whether she could hear him in her coma; but yet he sat there and told her what he had planted in the garden, how their daughters and grandchildren were doing in life, what was happening in life in general, and especially about her favourite soap opera which she had listened to on the radio.
Daily for the past six months since the accident he visited his dear wife in hospital and sat there sometimes for the whole day. The nursing staff knew him as a regular and dispensed with the official visiting schedules and left him by his wife’s bedside for as long as he wished. Sometimes he’d spend the whole night there asleep on a chair, however uncomfortable it was.
One Sunday morning, after Mass, he asked Father Ignatius if they could talk in private.
The two men went to Father Ignatius’ office and the priest asked how Mrs Clements was and whether there had been any improvements in her condition. Painfully, Mr Clements explained that she just laid there in bed, often with breathing apparatus connected to her, and not responding to any stimulus.
After a few moments of general discussion Mr Clements said, “Father, I need your advice about something …”
The priest nodded gently to encourage him to speak. The elderly man continued, “as you know, for a while now my wife has been in a coma. Technically, and medically, she is still alive … but to me I feel as if she is dead. I visit her every day, and I pray and pray to God to bring her back to me, but nothing seems to happen. There has not been any progress since her car accident.”
He stopped and sipped some tea to ease his dry throat. “The doctors and nurses have been very kind to me. Friends and neighbours too, especially when I was not well myself!”
The priest nodded gently and said nothing.
“One nurse in particular has been very kind,” the man said, “often when I was there for the whole day in hospital she would bring me a cup of tea.
“We got to know each other over time … she is my age and a widow. She told me how she felt when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. The thing is … Father … we became close friends over time. Often … on and off … she spent the night at home with me. It is so lonely being alone at home. Especially at night … that’s when I miss my wife most. This nurse said she feels the same about her husband since he died.
“Am I doing wrong Father?”
Father Ignatius knew that he had to be very sympathetic and loving towards this man in his dire situation. There was no point to preach to him and tell him what is right and what is wrong. When a man is starving you give him food, not read the Bible to him.
“I believe Jesus is suffering with you about what happened to your wife Josie and how it devastated your whole life …” he said.
“I feel as if I am cheating on her,” interrupted Mr Clements, “after all she is still alive and she is my wife. But to me … she is dead if you see what I mean, Father. My friendship with this nurse … Rita … was not intentional. It just happened. We were two lost souls both suffering the same loneliness and despair and then somehow … fate brought us together.
“I know I may be doing wrong in the eyes of God … Rita and I have so much in common. She is Christian but not Catholic. My daughters … our daughters … know of my relationship with Rita and they approve. They said that this is what my dear Josie would have wanted. They understand that she is as if she is dead.
“But I don’t know what to do, or whether God disapproves of my behaviour.”
“How do you think Rita, your friend, would feel if you suddenly broke up your relationship?” asked Father Ignatius gently.
“She’d be devastated,” replied the old man, “I’m sure of it. She said she has never known so much happiness since her husband died three years ago. I have not told her how I feel guilty about being with her, so she has no idea. I only discussed it with my daughters and now you. As I said, my daughters think I am silly and I should not worry. What do you think, Father? What would God want me to do?”
“Far be it for me to tell you what God wants you to do,” replied the priest still in his gentle voice, “there has been too much hurt in this situation already. The tremendous hurt to you and your daughters and family when the accident happened, as well of course at what your Josie has herself suffered. There is also the hurt that Rita suffered, and is suffering, since her husband died.
“I believe that God shares in this suffering. When Christ suffered and hung dying on the Cross God shared in that suffering also. There on the Cross was His only beloved Son dying at the hands of a cruel humanity.
“God allows suffering to happen. He does not make it happen, but He allows it as part of the freedom He has given us to act as we wish. It was not God who caused the accident which injured your wife so badly. It was the drunken driver. Of course, people would say that God should have intervened and stopped it from happening; but to do so would mean taking away the liberty of that individual to get drunk and drive. Once God has given us freedom to act as we want, He cannot take it back.
“But God is also loving and merciful. Sometimes, I believe often, good happens amongst all the evil and suffering that He allows to happen.
“It was through Christ’s suffering and death that we were redeemed and we found our way back to God.
“It is through what happened to Josie that you and Rita found each other. It would not have happened otherwise. And you would never have cheated on your wife had the accident not happened would you?”
“Of course not,” replied Mr Clements emphatically and raising his voice a little at the accusation, “I loved her … I still love her very much!”
“Yes, I know you love her,” continued the priest not reacting to the man’s outburst, “the point I am making is that through Josie’s tragic accident you and Rita met each other.
“I doubt that God would wish more heartache to be caused by you and Rita breaking up for no other reason than your feeling guilty!”
Mr Clements hesitated. “What … what are you saying? Does God forgive me for being with Rita?”
“I am saying that you and Rita need to have a long and serious grown-up discussion,” said the priest, “many relationships break down because of lack of communication and understanding.
“Tell her how you feel. Tell her you are very fond of her and that you wish to remain with her. Tell her what she means to you and how she changed your life since the accident. But discuss honestly what your conscience is telling you even though you might be confused as to what to do.
“Discuss with her what would happen if at some time Josie regains consciousness and is nursed back to good health. You said a moment ago you still love your wife dearly. What then? Would you leave your wife for Rita? Or what?”
“I … I … I never thought of that …” he mumbled to himself.
“You said that Rita is a Christian,” continued the priest as Mr Clements nodded, “then I suggest the two of you pray about this. God understands that two people in terrible situations found each other and fell in love. God is love, and He would not frown against your love of Rita. But at the same time God also loves Josie and what she has gone through and is still going through. We have to consider her situation in all this.
“As a priest, I cannot pronounce one way or the other as to what you should do. It would be wrong for me to do so. I understand that you consider Josie as dead and that leaving Rita would cause more hurt all round.
“It is not for me to decide for you what God wants you to do. But I shall pray for you and your family as well as for Rita.”
Mr Clements did not receive any definitive advice from Father Ignatius; but then it was probably too much to expect in such a difficult situation. The priest had to act sympathetically knowing full well that the Church’s position as set in the Bible is well understood by all concerned.
Two months later, whilst Mr Clements and Rita were in London for the weekend, Josie his wife died peacefully in her sleep.
(Based on a true story).
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