- Katie Hartfiel
How the Death of My Father Revealed the Power of my Spiritual Fathers
I’ve always loved priests. Their sacrifice, ministry and witness of Christ make them the most essential of all workers. However, in the last several weeks, as my father lay dying of COVID-19, I feel like my heart was ripped open to an appreciation of the priesthood I’ve never had access to before.
The story begins 20 years ago when my dad left our family. We shared a tense relationship for much of my childhood, but when I consider the darkest and most painful time of my life - this was it. For two years my dad would leave and return on a regular basis, raising hope within me that our family would be restored only so it could be torn apart again and again.
Over the years, I prayed novena after novena for my dad. Most notably, I would beg St. Joseph for his intercession. I remember vividly one night, in the thick of the war over my family, I told the Lord I was done fighting. I felt as though I was pouring my heart and desires for my dad’s conversion into daily prayer only for the situation to grow increasingly worse. My heart was spent and my hopes were gone. I told the Lord that I would continue to love Him, worship Him, serve Him and all of the other things. However, I would not ask Him to restore my family anymore. I couldn’t understand why God was withholding His power over the most painful part of my life.
This went on for several weeks, until one night, on my knees in my room, I felt a desire to pray for my dad. Now, I’m not a person who sees images or hears the voice of God regularly. Yet, this evening, I felt as if the Lord was showing me that my dad was holding an umbrella over his head. I “saw” in my heart that God was indeed hearing my prayers - and in fact He wanted my dad’s conversion more than I did! Not only was He pouring every grace and mercy I petitioned, but He was flooding my father with a superabundant portion I couldn’t have even known to ask for. Yet, here was my dad, huddled under the umbrella, trying to avoid any drop of this grace to touch him.
I learned two things that night. First, that I couldn’t relent in praying for my dad. If at any moment, that umbrella came down for an instant, I wanted God’s mercy to be there to overwhelm him. Secondly, I began to ask myself, what are the areas of my life where I am blocking God’s grace?
Eventually, my dad and I developed a cordial relationship. He moved away and later joined a non-denominational church. We spoke on holidays and birthdays and he would come and visit my brother and our growing families every three to five years or so. I last spoke to him on Father’s Day of 2020, without knowing we would never speak again.
A few weeks later, he visited the doctor for pneumonia and was tested for the coronavirus. Within 24 hours he was admitted to the ICU. Disconnected and concerned, my brother and I spoke about how we should best proceed. We knew we needed both information and prayer. As a result, I called the hospital chaplain an
d explained that although my dad was away from the church, he may be open to a visit from a priest. I was informed that there was a specific priest who was visiting Covid-19 patients and he would stop by my dad’s room the next morning. Hanging up, I allowed myself to let go and just weep. My emotions were so confusing. I was overwhelmed by memories and emotions I thought I had healed from. All I could do was begin to pray for that priest, whoever he was, and ask for God’s grace and mercy to rush through him and run over my dad.
Late that night, I decided to send my father a text message since he couldn’t talk on the phone as he battled for each breath. I told him I loved him and I was glad to hear about the outlook on several treatments they were trying. I concluded by letting him know about my call to the chaplain. I insisted there was no pressure, but I would love it if he would allow the priest to pay him a visit.
Early the next morning, I turned on my phone to a reply that simply said, “He just came by, thanks.” I would never hear from him again. Later that day, he was sedated and placed on a ventilator. As we waited, I once again asked St. Joseph the dreamer to work. The Lord spoke to Joseph in his sleep and I begged that God would be active in my dad’s sedated state. On the evening of the ninth day, his heart could no longer withstand the battle. He was gone.
I wish I could say that he received the Sacraments and had a miraculous deathbed conversion that day, but the truth is, I will never know what transpired in that room. However, I will also never forget the reality that one of the last people my dad laid eyes on in his life came to him “In Persona Christi” - in the person of Christ.
The story doesn’t stop there. Two priest family friends who are in residence together heard about my dad’s death and asked if they could concelebrate a private Memorial Mass for our family. Father Peter explained that this would basically be a funeral Mass but without the body. Father Victor reached out to me to see how I was doing and how he could pray for us. I didn’t really know what to expect emotionally, but of course I was incredibly humbled to have the chance for such a celebration. I could’ve never expected how blessed I would be by these two men. These two spiritual fathers honored my earthly father in a way that was beyond my dreams. They planned everything - flowers, a spot for my dad’s picture, a cantor and even lunch to follow. The word, “overwhelming” couldn’t begin to describe how humbly beautiful it all was.
There was the Lord working, like a consuming fire in my heart. Making Himself so known as He burned with such beauty, but also such power. Every word of this Mass was alive. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at such things, but I was blindsided. I sat there, staring at this image of my dad. My brother had chosen the picture, one from many years ago. My father looked like he did in my mind’s eye when I remembered it all. The tears came. They came in droves. These tears of pain and regret and sorrow somehow seemed to pave the way for tears of hope.
During the homily Fr. Peter spoke about the church we sat in, Saint Joseph’s. 150 years ago, St. Joseph was made patron of the Universal church. In celebration of this Jubilee, several spots were named by the Vatican as pilgrimage sites eligible for the opportunity for a plenary indulgence. This church was one of them. He told us that this was the first Memorial Mass celebrated in the parish since the naming of the Jubilee. As Fr. Peter preached, he didn’t talk about my dad “being in a better place” but about the goodness of who God is. He preached on how we are called to love him out of purgation and love him into heaven. It was an intense call to action, to sacrifice and to prayer.
I left with this amazing healing and overwhelming peace that lasted for days. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and pondering it all in my heart. At the end of the week, my husband and I decided to retreat to the beach for some reflection and processing. My husband called another priest friend who was assigned to that area to see if he could hear our confessions. We wanted to complete our plenary indulgence from this pilgrimage and offer it for my dad.
In the days since the Memorial Mass, I felt that I had let go of a lot, which also seemed to place a spotlight on the things that were still rearing their ugly head in my heart. To be perfectly honest, the concept of forgiveness has always been a bit elusive to me. I often struggled with what forgiveness looked like, practically speaking, when it came to what role my dad should play in my life. I came into the masked priest’s office and sat down six feet away. When telling this story to my middle school daughter later, she asked if I was ugly crying during my confession. The short answer was, yes. I was a mess. I told the priest how I had always questioned whether I had sins of omission. Was I the daughter God wanted me to be? Did I handle things like God wanted me to? Were there things I said or did that I needed to ask forgiveness for? I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that there was no way that I had handled things perfectly and without sin.
As I sit here remembering this encounter, I feel as if I am recalling a moment where I was speaking to Jesus face to face. This humble father, put his hands on his desk and looked at me with both kindness and intensity. He said, “Katie, I want you to look at me and I want you to hear the words I am about to say. I am going to say a lot of things that you already know, but that you need to hear.” I was done for. I knew whatever was going to come out of his mouth next would be so hard to swallow but necessary. He continued, “You are here because you want God’s mercy today, but mostly because you want to offer a sacrifice of this indulgence for your dad. That tells me where your heart is. You want your dad to be in Heaven. God doesn’t ask us to be perfect, He asks us to do our best. When you look at the past, and you ask all of the questions about what you should have or could have done, it means nothing now. It’s over. Your dad is gone. God wasn’t asking you to be perfect. He was asking you to do your best and I believe you did. It’s time to let all of that go. Today, you have the chance to do something more powerful than you could’ve done in your dad’s entire life. You have the chance to pray and sacrifice. You have the chance to offer your love in a way you could have never communicated to him while he was alive.”
He went on, “It’s like you have a wall in your heart that is separating you from what God wants for you. Think for a second about the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus died. Can you possibly imagine what they were feeling? Talk about regret! Peter denied Him over and over. The other Apostles ran and hid. Can you even begin to fathom what guilt that was weighing on them? When all of a sudden, Jesus walks through that wall. What does He say to them? Does He say, “Where were you guys?” Does He look to Peter and say, “You promised you would never leave me?” No, He says, “Peace be with you.” Katie, Jesus wants to walk through the wall of your heart and He wants nothing else but to bring you peace.”
What has stuck with me since then is this message of peace. Peace is a notion that is difficult to process in a world that feels unraveled. One of many coined phrases of 2020 is, “During these uncertain times…” For most of us, the word “uncertain” is the antithesis of the word, “peace.” I think if there is one thing we have learned this year, it is that nothing is certain. The truth is, it has always been this way! We live in denial of the fact that every second of our life has always been an uncertain time. Yet, the truth is that there is peace to be had in knowing that only one thing is certain, the Sovereign power of God. As Father Dave Pivonka says, “peace isn’t the absence of something, it is the presence of Someone.”
This someone is a Father. If there is anything I have learned through the death of my earthly father, the witness of my spiritual priestly fathers and the ultimate faithfulness of our Heavenly Father it is that God wants this unshakable peace for our hearts. This is not a peace that makes us comfortable, but a peace that makes us confident. If there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that God has built His promises on a guarantee that no virus, enemy or even the very gates of hell will prevail against us. He is moving, He is attentive, He is here, and He will triumph.