The experience of illness, full of sacrifices and medical visits, fears and hopes, lays bare our humanity and pushes us to face the truest questions. Fr. Gerry, Irish class of ’57, shares his story.

A few weeks ago at a wedding, a lively young girl took me by the hand and told me: “Fr. Gerry, you have a beautiful belly!”. The mother, standing by, was already thinking how to apologize, but the girl, taking my hand, continued: “Why are you trembling?”. I responded: “Because I am not very well”. “Why?”. “Because Jesus wants it this way”. And she said: “Alright, that is okay then”.

“Alright, that is okay then”. This is the truth: accepting an illness can become a path of liberation, and it is our decision. My first diagnosis with a malignant tumor was very strange. I had just seen John Paul II. There was a nice friendship between us. Every time that I would meet him, he would call me by name: “Fr. Gerry!”. He always remembered me. On one occasion, he came to the parish and was suffering a lot due to Parkinson’s disease. He was really down and it seemed like he could not breathe. During the meeting, I thought: “How could I be close to the Pope?”. It broke my heart to see him this way, and I said to myself the only way was to send him my guardian angel so that he could help him. I said within myself to my guardian angel: “I send you to his Holiness. Help him, give him a kiss and help him to get well”. After the meeting, we lined up to kiss his hand, and when I arrived he got up, he placed his right hand on my head and said: “Here you are!”. Then he made the sign of the cross. I was deeply moved.

The greatest help

A few days after the parish visit I went to the hospital for an appointment because I was getting very overweight. I definitely knew what the problem was, as the Romans often say, he likes “to magnà” (“to eat” in Roman dialect). It was, however, too much. In the hospital, they told me: “Let’s do a test and see what it is”. When I came back to get the results they gave me an envelope and said: “Bring this to your doctor”. At the stoplight, just like everyone would have done, I opened it: “Malignant carcinoma. To be operated immediately”. When the doctor saw it he got up, he hugged me and said: “You are very strong; you can overcome this.” At that very moment, I went into a little bit of a crisis.

The most difficult thing about being sick is not accepting it but telling the people you love most, because you know that your illness is going to make them suffer. For this reason, the greatest help you can offer a dear friend, at the time when they get sick, is to help them understand that suffering has the same origin as love: we suffer for that person because we love them, just like they suffer because they love us. We must never lose sight of this important positive aspect.

On Palm Sunday, I communicated the news to all the people of the parish during Mass: “I have a malignant tumor, but, please, never believe, never believe, that God punishes us. God does not punish through sickness. It is not a punishment but rather a blessing.” I wanted everyone to live this moment with me. On the way,  a young boy coming out of church approached me and said: “I also have a tumor and I thought God hated me. Today I learned that He loves me.”

An offering that bears fruit

Following the operation, I returned to the doctors and they told me that I would have to do radiotherapy in an enclosed room because I could not be close to anyone. They came in all suited up, they opened up a box with the radiation sign on it, and they asked me to take the pill and swallow it down. It was a gigantic looking thing and I asked: “Can I chew it?”. “Absolutely not!”. Looking at the box, I said: “I am scared, I am scared.” I have never ever had any problems saying I was scared: when someone says that they are scared, they always say it to someone, and doing this they open themselves to the possibility of God to come into their lives. If Jesus said it when he was in the garden of Gethsemane, then why can’t we say it? At that very moment, I had an intuition and I thought: “This is not medicine; this is God’s love for me. I accept your love for me.” I remained there for over seven days. I lived everything very easily, notwithstanding the fact I had a lot of questions: “Will I get worse? Will I die? What will I have to do?”.

When I came back to the parish, I met again the young boy that I spoke about earlier. He said to me: “Fr. Gerry, I have gotten worse; please don’t leave me alone”. From that day on, when he had panic attacks, I would go to see him, even at the most disparate times. I told his parents to call me. You should never treat a sick person as though he is a victim of a curse, or like a burden: you must love them. The person is not the illness; the person is always the same person, but there is something different and they will need something different. When I would visit him and he would tell me that he is scared, I responded to him: “I am here, and I am here with Jesus. Do not be afraid, I have you by the hand.” I would hold his hand, and I made the journey with him, all those hours, every day, until he left us. He was twenty-two years old. I was very tired because I am not only a priest, but a man, a man of God –this is what it means to be a priest. His father, who was not a believer, said to me: “I see that you are a man. You really cared for my son”. And I: “Your son was a gift from God to my life and for the lives of many”. After this fact, the group of young adults in the parish started looking at sickness with a new, positive gaze. This was 2001.

A new trial

Years went by, until the day came on which I learned that I had Parkinson’s disease. During the Mass, I began to notice that my hands were trembling and shaking quite a bit. Then, moments when I would think about a word and I would be about to say it, but a certain amount of time would pass before my brain would be able to make the connection. So I went to the doctor, who made me take a CT scan and other tests, which all led to the diagnosis of the disease.

Almost two years ago, I started to have difficulty walking. At the time, I had a major crisis. I went to my superior, Don Massimo Camisasca, and I told him: “Now because of Parkinson’s disease, I am almost not able to walk. I am not able to think straight. I need some help”.

I was deeply moved at this moment when Don Massimo took my hand, he kissed it and said to me: “Gerry, at this time your suffering connects heaven to earth: you suffer for many of your brothers: offer it all”. And he called a doctor who could help me and he added: “Go to Milan, to the Niguarda hospital. They will take care of you for a while there”.

The first night in the hospital was terrible. I started to cry, thinking that I would not make it, and not be able to bear this new trial. In the hallway of the Moscati Foundation, where I was a guest, there was a picture of don Giussani on his knees in front of Saint John Paul II. In front of them I prayed: “Don Giussani, you had Parkinson’s; Pope John Paul II, you had Parkinson’s disease; I have Parkinson’s disease: I don’t ask you to heal me, but help me to live this illness as you lived it.” Looking at them, I started to feel peace and I understood that the Lord is always close to me. He is making this journey with me.



Never abandon me

In Milan, I had to take the subway,on  the yellow line from the Moscati clinic all the way to Niguarda Hospital. I had to go alone and I could not walk very well; it seemed like I was drunk and I was really scared. I said: “Lord, please never let me be alone. I believe you are always near.” And he responded to me. During the whole year that I was in Milan, every day, when I would have to take the subway, I would always meet someone who knew me. One morning, an elderly woman asked me where the subway stop was, and I was giving her directions, when I heard: “Don Gerry! I was your student in Ireland twenty years ago. What are you doing here?”. There were many chance encounters like this. One day, I did not meet anyone but there was an empty seat beside me. Along came a mother with her child, who immediately ran to sit down beside me. She looked at me and smiled. In faith, I said to myself: “This is God”.

I firmly believe that God is present in everything. Christ came to save us and to accompany us. If we don’t believe in His presence in the small things of life, then we will not believe in Him at all. I arrived at the point at which I could say: Fr. Gerry does not have Parkinson’s disease; it is Jesus who has Parkinson’s disease and He carries it in my body. An illness is never a condemnation, but it is the beginning of a newness. I cried a lot, and I had moments of great desolation. Until you have had everything taken away from you, you cannot recognize that all that you have has been given to you by God. When you get sick and you can barely get up, whatever simple act that you would like to do, someone else has to do for you. During this time, it became clear to me the meaning of the popular phrase: “I am You who make me” which Fr. Giussani taught us. That “You” is the person who is close to you and helps you continue on.

The secret of the grace of the illness is that Christ himself suffers in us because He has come to redeem the world. This is the story of our lives, and I, as a priest, understand this even more so when I lift up the Sacred Host. I look at Jesus who suffered and I understand that what I have to bear is quite little compared to everything that He has given to me. God speaks through silence, through words and through facts. Sometimes, it is the moments of silence that are most effective. Towards the end of the movie Francis, by Liliana Cavani, the poor man from Assisi enters into a profound crisis and yells out: “Who am I? Who are You?” In times of sickness, we embark on the same journey as did this popular saint: Who am I? Who are You, Christ? I am learning that my life is a lot greater than the sickness it has; it is more than my body, for in it, I can recognize He who comes, Love, He who loves me, He who creates me in every moment, He who creates from all Eternity.


(Foto  FarbenfroheWunderwelt).

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