Losing much, then gaining more

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Written by GERALD M. COSTELLO, The Christophers   
Saturday, 11 September 2010 02:50
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“At least a marvel and at best a saint.”

That’s the way Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh summed up the life and ministry of one of his diocesan priests, Father Patrick Rager, who died July 20 at age 50. For almost 25 years, beginning just a year or two after his ordination in 1985, Fr. Rager conducted a telephone ministry with the disabled — and how he could relate to the problems he listened to! He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — and he knew the hardships of his own life even as he counseled others.

“I’ve learned the most essential thing,” he once told an interviewer. “You’ve got to be accepting. It teaches you great faith in God. If you can’t accept your condition, you can’t move on. That’s my job, getting people with handicaps to accept their disabilities, then to get them to go on with their lives.”

Grace Harding, who headed the diocesan Department of Persons With Disabilities and talked Fr. Rager into creating his telephone ministry in 1987, was amazed at the priest’s determination. “Fr. Pat suffered, but he never ever complained about his situation,” she said. “He always felt that this was what God wanted from him and he accepted this.”

Fr. Rager, once a gifted athlete, began experiencing mysterious symptoms even as a 21-year-old seminarian, according to the obituary written by Patricia Bartos, senior staff writer for the Pittsburgh Catholic. His leg would go out without warning, for example, and he would crash to the ground. He was ordained despite the ALS diagnosis, but his condition worsened in his first parish assignment and soon he was using a wheelchair. As his situation became more dire he had to leave the parish and return home, and it was there that he wondered how he could continue his priestly life. Grace Harding provided the solution, and he answered her invitation with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Fr. Rager began his outreach program that year with a list of 60 names. He soon expanded that to hundreds, began a newsletter, and wrote a column for the Pittsburgh Catholic. His friend, Father Walt Rydzon, explained why the ministry was so successful: “Pat knew the cross, and the suffering souls who sought his wisdom knew that also. That’s why they listened and believed.”

In his funeral homily, Father Kris Stubna, a classmate, recalled that Fr. Rager had “a passion for living, a great sense of humor.” He continued: “I admired him tremendously for the choices he made. I believe he saw his suffering and infirmity as an integral part of his priestly ministry and an opportunity for grace for himself and for others. He chose to accept that his illness was part of God’s will.”

Bishop Zubik once wrote that “Fr. Rager’s disease has robbed him of almost every aspect of what we would associate with a normal day: walking, running, eating, touching, speaking and, in Fr. Pat’s case, some might even say ‘priesting.’ ” Now, the bishop said, “His only means of communication are his eyes and his smile.” He added: “His eyes reflect the depth of Christ in his life and in his soul. His story has so beautifully touched all of our hearts.”

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For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, “At The Heart Of Prayer,” write to The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004 or e-mail mail@christophers.org.

Last Updated on Saturday, 11 September 2010 02:50