By Fr. Jim Betzen
Periodically, a priest takes time in his priesthood to go away from ministry to spend time in continuing education, often called sabbatical studies. In the summer and fall of 2016, I was involved with continuing education due to a diagnosis of sarcoma cancer on my left knee. I learned lessons from life rather than from professors of theology. The time frame for cancer care began with the diagnosis of cancer in early July, followed by five weeks of radiation in Iowa City through August and into the first week of September. Finally, I had surgery on Oct. 11 and six weeks of recovery.
For the five weeks of radiation treatment, Mondays through Fridays, I stayed at Hope Lodge in Iowa City, a facility for cancer patients and their caretakers. Besides clothes, I took my laptop to write for the bulletin and to keep up on emails from the diocese and parish. I also used the computer to “Skype” (a video chat) weekly with our office manager, Jourdan Reynolds.
Back in Ottumwa, Jourdan and Sister Irene Muñoz took care of office business and visits. Our neighboring priest, Father Patrick Hilgendorf, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa and St. Mary Magdalen in Bloomfield, took care of the sick and presided at funerals.
At Hope Lodge, I was part of a community of cancer patients and their caretakers. Most were elderly couples but some were parent and child. For a priest, it was a good experience seeing married couples caring for one another in difficult times. On the weekends, I went home on Friday afternoon to catch up on the mail, sign checks and answer questions. I officiated at the three weekend Masses. Since I did not know how my body would respond to five weeks of radiation treatment, I did ask for help on the weekends that I had weddings. Bishop Martin Amos and Father Thom Hennen took one of the morning Masses on the weekends that I had weddings to lighten my work.
On Oct. 11, 2016, I had surgery in Iowa City to remove the cancerous tumor on my knee. My sister, a nurse from Wichita, Kan., and a Precious Blood companion from Sedalia, Mo., visited me in the hospital and brought me home to Ottumwa a few days after the surgery. Our parish maintenance man loaned me a hospital bed which he put in my first-floor office.
For the next six weeks, a home health nurse came in the morning, mostly to change my bandages. At noon, a Meals on Wheels volunteer and parishioner brought lunch. In the evening, a couple from the parish brought me an evening meal. Priests from the diocese and one of our Precious Blood priests substituted for me on the weekends. Several of the parishioners dropped by to see how I was doing and to tell me they were praying for me. A couple from the parish continues to take me to Iowa City every four months for my follow-up checkups.
From this ordeal, I realized how united we are in care and in prayer. At times in life, we are care givers and at other times, we are care receivers. We must learn to be good at both giving and receiving care. As a Catholic priest, much of my attention is on caring for my parishioners. I learned so much when my parishioners cared for me. St. Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ being the Christian community became more meaningful to me. One of my Hispanic parishioners shared with me that it was a time of spiritual renewal for the parish when many of our parishioners cared for me.
Also, my experience at Hope Lodge in Iowa City gave me a greater appreciation of the marriage bond. I saw husbands and wives care for their ailing spouses, taking them to the hospital for treatment and seeing to their daily needs. They were living out their marriage vows with perseverance and hope. I also enjoyed playing cards and sharing stories with these couples.
In closing, I would hope that those who read this article pray for priests who are retired and are infirm. Remember that once they cared for their parishioners and now need others to care for them.
(Fr. Betzen, C.PP.S., is pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa.)