Making the Rounds in Gemelli Hospital

The Christian meaning of suffering.
by Br Michael Steele, LC | Source:
I woke up suddenly in a hospital bed and rolled over. The clock on the wall showed 3:00am. My bed faced the elevators of Gemelli’s neurophysiology unit on the 7th floor. It was neither the first nor last time I would awake that long night. Doctors and nurses scurrying past at all hours kept sleep at bay and then there was the incessant, annoying “bing” every time someone, somewhere got on or off that elevator.

I gave up on sleep after trying for another hour, got ready and went to the hospital’s chapel for an early meditation, Mass and imposition of ashes. (Want to see people really praying? Try attending Mass in a hospital chapel.) The Franciscan’s homily moved me, given the experiences during those days: “Lent is a time for more prayer, for charitable deeds, for giving to the poor.” “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”

My superiors had asked me to assist a Legionary priest—he would be embarrassed if I mention his name—who was suffering from complications due to a stroke he had ten years earlier. A group of brothers, including myself, were looking after him in 24-hour shifts.

But it was more like him taking care of us. Instead of staying tucked in bed and suffering like an ordinary patient, he would shuffle down the corridors wrapped in his big black bathrobe and make “pastoral visits.” Of course he would let us tag along. Christ’s heart beats in Father’s chest, and so he could not just lie in bed thinking of his own suffering. He went out to engage, to console, to encourage, and to suffer with others. He went to bring them Christ. He would knock at the room entrance, poke his head inside, smile and say, “How are you? I’m an Irish priest.” The patient’s face would immediately transform from contorted glumness to relaxed cheerfulness and then the stories would tumble out.

Out of all the patients, one touched me unforgettably. He was on his back with his scrawny legs tucked up under him. He was feverish and on top of the covers in spite of the February chill. His name was Luigi. He was 36 years old, but the size of an adolescent and dying of a degenerative brain disease that was knocking out his organs one by one. He couldn't eat or talk. He communicated by twitching his facial muscles and blinking his eyes, or looking at a sign scrawled with short phrases: “I’m hot,” “I’m cold,” “Change me...” When he saw us, he smiled (or tried to). We told him that his first job in heaven, when he gets there, would be to watch over all of us seminarians.

The Questions

“Why Luigi, Lord,” I prayed, Why him? He’s got a wife and two kids.” This “Why?” was written on every single face as we made the rounds, but none hit home as hard as meeting Luigi.

A hospital is a place to grapple with suffering and its meaning. In fact, it later dawned on me that Pope John Paul II, struggled with the same questions more than once on the tenth floor of the same hospital; after being shot by Ali Agca, after a fall and operation, and then while fighting that horrible disease. A beautiful letter, Salvifici Doloris, is the result of his interior struggle with suffering.

On another occasion, standing at the window of his papal apartment, he addressed the following words to those gathered to welcome him back from the hospital. He said:

“Through Mary, I would like to express my gratitude for this gift of suffering… I give thanks for this gift. I have now understood that this gift is necessary. The Pope had to be in the Gemelli Hospital, he had to be away from this window for four weeks, for four Sundays, he had to suffer. Just as he had to suffer thirteen years ago, this year is no different.

“I have meditated, I have rethought all of this during my stay in the hospital.”

“The Pope must be attacked, the Pope must suffer, so that every family and the entire world might see that there is a Gospel, I would say, a higher Gospel: the Gospel of suffering, with which the future must be laid, the third millennium of the family, of every family, and of all families.”

“…I understand that it is important to have arguments before the powerful of this world. Once again I face the powers of this world, and I must speak. What reasons should I give? My reasons are the reasons of suffering. And I would like to tell them: understand it, understand why the Pope was once again in the hospital, suffering once again, understand it, think it over!”
(29 May 1994)

Coming Home

I brought home some valuable lessons from Gemelli. I learned from Father how much good one can do with simple words of compassion, courage, faith and consolation. I learned the meaning of solidarity in suffering and that a priest by his vocation must put aside his own suffering and embrace that of others. I learned that a hospital is a place to engage others.

I learned that everyone has to suffer in one way or another, but that it has meaning through and in Jesus Christ who suffers.

This is after all the message of Jesus’ passion and death which we just celebrated. So why not make a random visit to a hospital or retirement home? It will change your life and bring Christian joy, the joy of the resurrection, to those you meet. Isn’t this really the meaning of Christian life: to step out of our comfort zone and bring the news of the resurrection to others?

Br Michael Steele, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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