Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …"
Fr. Robert Kus has been pastor of the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary in Wilmington, N.C., since 2006.
A Cleveland, Ohio, native, Kus earned a degree from the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital School of Nursing, a doctorate in sociology from the University of Montana and a post-doctoral degree in psychiatric mental health nursing from the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. He was a professor at the University of Iowa from 1982-1992.
He studied at the St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana and was ordained a priest for the Raleigh, N.C., diocese in 1998. Kus served as parochial vicar in parishes in Wilmington and Wake Forest before being named pastor at the basilica.
During his time at St. Mary's, the parish has adopted a sister parish in the mountains of Honduras, founded the St. Mary Health Center and established The Upper Room 1871, a wedding reception venue. - Peter Feuerherd
Following are selected entries from Kus' journal which give some insight to a day in the life of a busy parish priest. The entries were provided to NCR for publication in the Field Hospital blog, and have been edited for clarity.
Aug. 4, 2002
After this morning's four Masses, two baptisms and one presentation, I went to the cemetery outside of Louisburg, N.C. The graveside service was for a 37-year-old Mexican woman, "P." She had a stroke and died after the physicians saved the baby she was carrying. The baby, a little girl, is alive and healthy and weighs just three pounds. She'll be in the hospital for about two months.
The graveside service was very strange. My first clue that something was not quite right was at the moment I entered the cemetery. One of the funeral directors said, in a confidential voice, "Father, this is not a typical family. You'll see." Now, of all the professional people with whom I have dealt with in my life, none can compare with the strict professionalism of funeral directors. They always present themselves with dignity and class. So, for one to make a comment about a family, the family would have to truly be odd.
First of all, we had a His Holiness preacher, a Southern Baptist preacher, and me, a Catholic priest. The husband, a Protestant man, came to the proceedings wearing a filthy T-shirt that barely covered his beer belly, and grungy pants. He was very friendly but rather out of place compared to everyone else who wore more "funeral-like" clothes. Most of the people attending were Hispanics.
Because of the large crowd, most of the people could not fit under the green tent where the casket was resting over the gravesite. The sun was blazing down on us, and the temperature was 94 degrees. First, the His Holiness minister said some prayers and a little homily. Then the Baptist minister said a prayer and sang a country-Gospel song to a recording on a little boom box. I then led the community in graveside prayers in Spanish, in which most of the people joined. As soon as I made the sign of the cross in Spanish, you could almost feel the relief among the Hispanics who must have thought, "Finally, we understand something!" One of the children from St. Catherine's Hispanic community was astonished to learn that I could speak English! She had never been at an English-speaking Mass.
After the services, several of the women went wild in their display of grief. One woman insisted that I did not sprinkle the casket correctly; I needed to make a cross on top of the casket with the water. She and others believed that if the casket does not have a cross on it, the devil could come and steal away the soul. So I made a sign of the cross with the water and my blessing. That seemed to satisfy the group.
Besides the howling and collapsing, many of them were insistent that the casket be opened one last time. This set off the husband who flew into a rage, yelling in English while the others looked on with fear and grief in their faces. Finally, with the help of another man, I led the most hysterical woman down a hill to a chair under a tree where other family members gathered. We gently led the woman to a metal chair to sit down. Unfortunately, the chair was under the blazing sun, so when her bottom touched the chair, she jumped out of the seat like a grasshopper flying out of a hot skillet with a blood-curdling scream. We finally got her calmed down.
The whole way home to Wake Forest, I kept thinking to myself, "I have got to write down this funeral experience so I don't ever forget it!"
Dec. 3, 2002
This morning, I went with a parishioner to visit two of her aunts who are both in their nineties. They live in the family home that was built in 1811! Civil War Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's men camped on the land. At that time, the homestead had over 1,000 acres. Sherman himself is said to have slept in the house. The house is magnificent and filled with antiques. There are fireplaces in each room and beautiful carved wood everywhere. It has two kitchens and a greenhouse room. I was most fascinated with the stairway that wound up to another floor where the "birthing room" was located. Though the two elderly women are Baptists, I celebrated the sacrament of the sick with them. Before I anointed them, however, they wanted assurance that the blessing would not turn them into Catholics! I assured them that they'd still be Baptists after the blessing.
Dec. 5, 2002
Later in the afternoon and evening, I have been reading The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey (The Journals of Thomas Merton) Volume Seven, 1967-1968. I truly love reading journals and learning how people do life. How grateful I am that the Holy Spirit inspires some people to write journals.
In this volume of Merton's journal, the last before his death in Bangkok, he is living in a hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He had become tired of the monastic life, and finally received permission to be a hermit, though remaining a Trappist monk.
I am amazed that he shared some of the same problems I have encountered even though I'm a diocesan priest -- an apostolic hermit -- while he was a monk hermit. We both relish solitude, yet we both seek to be integrally related and involved in the world.
I see a very common thread in the lives of three of my favorite spiritual writers, all Catholic priests -- Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Andrew Greeley. All of them show a fierce passion about their writing. All love solitude, for it is in solitude that the writer flourishes. Yet each of these three found himself continually getting swamped by the outside world. Each was hounded by interview requests, letters to answer, invitations to give retreats or conferences, and the like. And all knew that they had a need to be social, yet had to get plenty of alone time to do their work as writers.
As I write this reflection by the light of a lantern this icy evening, I pray that perhaps someday, someone -- hopefully a parish priest somewhere -- will be able to read this journal and find the Spirit talking to him through a soul mate. What a great gift that would be, for me to be able to touch another's life by recording my own life journey as a parish priest and writer!
Nov. 15, 2005
On Saturday evening, there was a farewell dinner at Capri Restaurant for Fr. Shay Auerbach, my Jesuit friend stationed at St. Raphael's. He will be leaving the parish for Baltimore. Shay's family, who live in Hawaii, sent him a beautiful orchid lei to wear.
Because I was asked to give the blessing before the dinner, I asked everyone to stand up for the prayer. There was a somewhat large group of people on my right that did not stand up right away, but they did when asked. It was only after the blessing and everyone had been seated, that I learned that the people to my right were not part of our party! They joined in the prayer anyway, probably thinking we were some very strange people indeed.
June 5, 2011
This morning I did the 8:00 a.m. Mass, but shortly into the Mass, I knew it was a big mistake to do it alone. My voice was basically gone by the time I ended the Mass. So, for the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. Masses, Padre Alex and I came up with a plan. We announced before Mass that:
The bad news is that Fr. Bob has laryngitis.
The good news is that Padre Alex is visiting us from our sister parish in Honduras.
The bad news is that he can speak only Spanish.
The good news is that we are St. Mary Parish and are noted for being flexible.
Therefore, today's Mass will be in Spanglish.
How our plan worked: I did the opening and closing prayer, and Padre Alex did the Eucharistic Prayer. John Walsh, our Director of Religious Education, read my homily. All went smoothly at the 11:00 a.m. Mass. The 9:30 a.m. Mass was a bit more interesting.
At the 9:30 Mass, we had an altar server who was experiencing his first day on the altar. At the preparation of the gifts time, he turned as white as a sheet and was swaying. I caught him and sat him down while he asked if he could go home. Meanwhile, the other servers were setting up the altar, and Padre Alex came over. I sent Padre Alex with the young boy into the sacristy to help him, but I realized neither could understand the other's language. Finally the mother came up, and all turned out okay. All was well until the Communion time when the organ decided to act up with a stuck pipe. I was afraid of laughing as this was turning out to be such an unusual Mass; the caption "The Three Stooges Do Mass" came into my head. For the closing hymn, we sang without the help of the organ. Naturally the temperature in the church seemed to be about 150 degrees! I was so thrilled to finish that Mass. On the other hand, I kept thinking that I can't wait to record my notes from this Mass: it will make a fine story one day.
April 26, 2013
Here's my schedule for this weekend, including yesterday:
- 8:45 a.m. Mass
- 10:00 a.m. Internment of Garry at St. Francis
- 5:00 p.m. Wedding rehearsal
- 7:00 p.m. Stewardship training – Dave M.
- 8:30 p.m. Wake Service – Bright's – Genevieve D.
- 10:00 a.m. Funeral for Genevieve
- 2:00 p.m. Wedding
- 3:00 p.m. One Spanish baptism
- 3:15 p.m. Two Anglo baptisms
- 3:30 p.m. Reconciliation
- 5:00 p.m. Mass with first Holy Communions
- 7:30 a.m. Mass with two Anglo baptisms
- 9:00 a.m. Mass with School First Holy Communions
- 10:30 a.m. Mass with First Holy Communions
- 12:30 p.m. Mass in Spanish with two Hispanic baptisms
- 7:00 p.m. Speak to Visions youth group about "God & Politics"
I'm sure all will go well this weekend, and whatever glitches come along, we'll deal with them. Yesterday, for example, the wedding rehearsal was scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Usually, they are for 5:30 p.m. Unfortunately, nobody told the bride or groom of the time change, so everyone showed up at 5:30. We managed to do the whole practice in a half an hour, in time for the first Holy Communion practice for those kids who failed to come to the regularly scheduled practice last week.
[Fr. Robert Kus is pastor of the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary's in Wilmington, N.C.]