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Originally published Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 3:28 PM

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Faith & Values

Faith helps us shift our focus when aging makes life difficult

The Rev. Patrick J. Howell says a fair portion of his role as rector of a community of 30 Jesuits revolves around health care. When he first learned of his appointment, he thought, "We're going to have a lot of health-care issues during these next six years."

Special to The Seattle Times

A fair portion of my role as rector (religious superior) of a community of 30 Jesuits revolves around health care. In fact, when I first received word that Father Nicolás, superior general of the Jesuits in Rome, had appointed me rector, my very first thought was, "We're going to have a lot of health-care issues during these next six years."

Since we had 14 men over the age of 70, I knew we would face issues of diminishment, illness, doctors' appointments, medications, and difficult conversations about retirement, moving into assisted care, and end-of-life. These were the same family conversations that so many of you readers have faced if you have aging parents. I was also confident, however, that our Jesuit spirituality and the generous, well-grounded disposition of our men would make my job much easier.

True to form, within my first month as rector, I was at the University of Washington Medical Center with one of our men when he received a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. He accepted it with great equanimity and a profound spiritual peace. I was moved and edified.

From then on, he and I had many conversations about palliative medicine, hospice care and how long he could continue as a pastor in the Catholic parish he served. He was a planner and an organizer, so before long several parishioners had stepped up to assist him in his final days. The people he had helped now reversed roles and reached out in love and compassion to their pastor.

Another difficult moment is when I need to tell someone that they can no longer drive. Recently I restricted one of our Jesuits in his 80s to driving only during daylight and no driving on the freeways except for Saturday and Sunday mornings. It's a hardship, but it ensures his safety and that of others, and it still allows him to preside at morning Masses. I have the advantage that he accepts my decision out of a spirit of religious obedience.

At a Jesuit Superiors Colloquium at Santa Clara two weeks ago, a nurse who works extensively in Jesuit health care in New England suggested five benchmarks for when a man needed to move to one of our province-assisted care facilities, which in our case is located in Spokane. These signposts were: 1) lack of personal hygiene, 2) confusion over medications, 3) falling and instability, 4) increasing frailty, and 5) hoarding.

"Hoarding." Really? The nurse explained that hoarding could take any number of forms: stacking up endless magazines for reading someday, squirreling money away in books or other hidden locations, gobbling down a box of chocolates in one setting, and so forth. It can be a sign of insecurity, emptiness or even depression.

Another challenge confronting senior Jesuits is locating new sources of fulfillment and joy after they have retired from their traditional role as teacher, pastor, spiritual counselor, or other fulfilling position. If they are no longer "producers," what is their role? From whence do they derive their purpose for living?

Fortunately, our Jesuits are bound together by shared beliefs and a profound grasp of the Jesuit mantra of "seeing God in all things," even in suffering and death. Together we offer emotional, physical and spiritual help. Together we assist, pray for and anoint with blessing a brother in his final moments.

These attitudes which helped my brother Jesuits accept their own mortality are, of course, not unique to us. Trusting in God doesn't eradicate fear of death, but it shifts our focus to the graces received throughout our lives and to the faces of people who have loved us — no matter what. It may help us bring resolution to unfinished business and forgiveness for past injuries. It allows us to live the moment more fully and to accept the vicissitudes of life with grace and humor, despite the seeming indignities that advancing age may bring.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com

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