Ministering to a terminally ill 14-month-old boy as a volunteer chaplain at Saskatoon Hospital in Saskatchewan was more than Father Modestus Ngwu, O.P., could handle.
The boy’s pain and the family’s agony affected the priest for weeks after his brief fill-in at the hospital in 2013. It was his first experience with hospital chaplaincy, and he hoped it would be his last.
Three years later, he was assigned to the Diocese of Harrisburg, where he was appointed chaplain at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
In his own words, Father Modestus says he dreaded working at the hospital. “I was truly hoping that my assignment would only last six months, at which time I could move on with my life.”
Instead, he has continued to serve at the hospital since 2016; in June he will become its Supervising Catholic Hospital Chaplain.
“I can comfortably say that I enjoy being at the hospital, only by God’s grace,” he reflects.
So what changed for Father Modestus, who once “viscerally and categorically” rejected an invitation to volunteer as a hospital chaplain, but today enjoys the great privilege of standing by a patients’ bedside?
He found “Grace in Horror” – the title of his recently-released book that recounts his search for meaning in the struggles of patients, the answers we seek in the face of suffering and the graces we can find in the most unexpected and painful places.
Described by Father Modestus as a “distress letter to God,” the book is an honest piece that pulls no punches in crying out and questioning our Heavenly Father. Nor does it hold back on the gifts of pastoral and insightful approaches that lead to grace, hope and love.
Overwhelmed with the Reality of It All
A native of Nigeria, Father Modestus was ordained a priest in his native country more than 15 years ago. After serving as a pastor and as a high school and prison chaplain in Saskatoon for seven years, he arrived in the Diocese of Harrisburg and was assigned to hospital ministry in Hershey in 2016, with residence at St. Joan of Arc Parish.
“I became overwhelmed when I was faced with the reality of it all,” he told The Catholic Witness of his experience as hospital chaplain.
“Many times, I would go back to my room at the end of the day and write down some of the experiences to share my struggles, trying to find meaning and searching for answers,” he said.
He recounts some of these struggles in the book: personal encounters of children dying from leukemia, newborns taking their first and last breaths in the arms of their parents, mothers weeping the death of a child from gun violence, men and women giving up the will to live because of paralysis.
In one of the starkest passages in the book, Father Modestus gives readers an authentic glimpse into how he – even as a priest – struggled to make sense of it all:
At first, it was easy for me to be strong and priestly while administering the sacraments, especially Last Rites. I was able to do that once, twice or periodically. To be confronted with suffering over and over again while working at the hospital shredded me. I couldn’t make sense of it anymore. It left me with no choice but to raise these questions and ask God why. I know that it may sound like the wrong question to ask, but my faith was seeking understanding. I wanted to find answers to really believe and build my own faith in God. Watching as a child died, I could not continue to bring myself to accept that theodicy makes sense. Filled with tears, I have asked, Where are You, God, when Your children are crushed by pain, sickness and death? What use is praying to You when You seem so far from us in times of need? We prayed, believed the testimonies of what You have done for others; why are You not listening to us and healing those we are asking You to help? We can only speculate about His response to these questions. Why is He deaf to our supplications? Is God really using these experiences to test us as He tested Job? Is He allowing us to suffer so we learn from it? I do not know! Do we really have to go through excruciating suffering, abandonment, hurts, diseases and pandemics to appreciate the beauty in life? Is God making us go through hell? Really? For what purpose?
“The purpose of writing all of this down was to try to find understanding,” Father Modestus said in the interview. “It was a way for me to say to God, ‘I’m supposed to be your salesman, but I don’t have the tools. You sent me out to bring comfort to someone, but they die. I love these people.’ Most of these patients, I got to know them. Seeing the reality of people dying was so difficult, and it was my search for the meaning of it all that gave birth to the book.”
He said readers have found it striking that a priest would ask God the questions posed in the book. “We’re not supposed to ask ‘Why?’ or ‘Why me?’” Father Modestus said. “But this is a way of me singing my Psalms and asking God my questions.”
The vulnerability he expresses also serves as a way of reminding readers that priests are people, too, with their own struggles, grief, troubles, hopes and joys.
“Many times, people don’t associate humanness with being a priest. Sometimes, we are considered mythical beings. We cease to be human. Our emotions are repressed, our tears are repressed, we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to say the right thing, we’re supposed to do the right thing,” Father Modestus said. “For me, I was able to break away from that, to say, ‘Look, I am struggling. I am not here to pretend that I understand all this.’”
“We have to be authentic to who we are,” he added.
The book is more than lamentations of the horror of illness and death, as Father Modestus reveals the gift that helped him make sense of his patients’ struggles. It’s the same gift that helped his sick and dying patients and their families find hope and love amid pain and grief: the gift of grace.
“The gift of grace is so freeing. At the hospital, I could laugh without being afraid of being judged. I could cry with people, I could give someone a hug,” he said. “That is so freeing, to be myself without feeling shame of being authentic or afraid of how people would respond.”
“It becomes a shared experience, it becomes companionship, it becomes a sacred moment. There are times I cry with patients, but there are also times that we laugh and joke. In that, there is grace,” he said. “Grace is not only when I’m saying a prayer; it is the gift of presence, sharing time with them. Seeing Jesus in every patient in the hospital is what changed things for me.”
“I ended up seeing Jesus in the patients that I meet every day. Seeing Jesus in the hospital bed was an image that helped me tremendously. As a priest, as another Christ, I am bringing the sacraments of healing to patients who are sick. What became powerful for me is seeing myself not just as a priest, but as me seeing Jesus in the hospital bed. I see Him in their pain, their suffering, their struggle. I am seeing Jesus in His suffering and I am being His companion,” Father Modestus explained.
Recounting conversations with patients – kept anonymous to protect their identity – “Grace in Horror” shares the lessons Father Modestus learned from those in his care, namely to listen and be present.
Those are takeaways for all of us who are struggling with what to say or how to approach a person who is sick, grieving or dying.
“As priests, we are trained to teach and preach, not to listen. But the patients and their suffering taught me to listen, to pay attention to things that are important to them. You sit with them, even if they are talking for an hour or two hours. You listen instead of giving them advice or telling them what to do. Just sit and listen,” Father Modestus said.
“It’s natural to want to remove the problem, to fix things for them. We want to say the right thing, or have the right answer. But what that person needs is our silent companionship. Just sit there. Hold their hand in that sacred moment. It’s not about what you say; it’s about that you love them,” he said. When there is silence, we want to find a litany of the right words to say. No, just realize that your presence is what is needed. Jesus even asked that of his disciples, to stay with Him for one hour.”
Father Modestus has a straightforward message he wants to get across to readers of his book: “The awareness that we are all in this mess together,” he said.
“In the moments of suffering, difficulty and confusion, we realize that we are not alone. There are so many others that have their own crosses, but we cannot compare our own crosses to those of others. Instead, appreciate the sacrifices we make. Appreciate the pain we are all going through,” he said.
“Also, don’t shame your feelings,” he urged. “Don’t say, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way.’ It’s liberating to realize that when our hearts are in anguish and we’re asking hard questions, it’s also a moment of prayer. We are singing our own Psalms when we are crying out to God: ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ ‘Why are you not granting my son healing?’ ‘Why am I sick and dying?’ We are asking the same things as Jesus in Gethsemane when He said, ‘Take this cross from me.’ But after asking these questions, we must say ‘God, thy will be done.’”
“We should not let anybody shut those feelings down, or not allow us to express that anguish that is on our hearts,” he said.
In paperback form, “Grace in Horror” is 209 pages, and includes a suggested reading list from Father Modestus and a foreword by Bishop Ronald Gainer. The book is available for purchase at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey and at www.amazon.com.
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness