Lords over life?

Accompanying Life Fully, to the Deepest

An interview with a priest in an American hospital, who has seen how the sick can rediscover the miracle of being human, through the answer of a friendship

edited by Paolo Perego

Working as a hospital chaplain in the United States, Fr. Vincent Nagle comes into daily contact with the sick and often with those in desperate circumstances. Last year, he published a book in Italian, On the Frontiers of the Human, a Priest Among the Sick (Rubbettino), recounting his life as a priest and a “man among men,” in the words of Fr. Massimo Camisasca’s preface. We asked a few questions of this priest of the Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, who has been traveling throughout Italy recently to tell about his experience.

Lately, from the controversy about heterologous fecundation in Italy, to the Terri Schiavo case in the United States, the world seems to be proposing a reduction of the concepts of life and of man. Is a different response possible? If so, what?
The only response I see as possible is the one Christ gave us, in saving us from fear. Fear makes us do things we’d never have thought of doing; it detaches us from reality and makes us treat everything like an instrument of power and not as a possibility for love. So in the face of human life, we are fearful and treat it as an instrument of power, and not as an occasion of love. I would say that the real possibility lies in visible people who are not afraid of charity, who do not fear accompanying life fully, even in its most dramatic moments, who are not frightened of living the adventure of reality fully, deep down. This is the only real response. I believe that our friendship, a profoundly human friendship that saves us from fear, is the answer.

What does it mean for you to be in contact with ten, twenty Terri Schiavos every day?
First of all, it means always focusing on the essential core of the motive for my life, the reason I am in the world, what enables me to open myself to everything God sends me. It is a grace, because it makes me absolutely conscious in every moment that I am not the answer but, at the same time, that an answer has been given in my life, and I can share this answer with others. For me, it also means that I can never stop praying. I know that this may seem a particular detail that is only valid for me, and not a judgment that can be communicated. However, I believe that only in an already saved particular can you find a response for everyone.

The people you speak of are human beings, before being “the sick,” without being reductive about who they are and the circumstances they’re living through. Is this unity of the person possible? If so, in what does it consist, and from what is it born?
Yes, the unity of the person is possible. Every day, I see patients who travel a road with a person like me, a person who is happy that they are there, who is happy to find them there, and who is honored and grateful to be able to share this experience with them. These patients recover a sense of meaning and return to perceiving the miracle of being human, of being themselves, there, with everything that there is. So, I believe that the recovery of the “I,” living the “I,” can happen only under the gaze of one who is happy that these patients exist, no matter what their circumstances.

What does your work mean for you? What does it mean for you to be “a priest among the sick”?
The very fact that I wear a collar and priest’s clothes, as soon as I enter the room, opens a totalizing horizon that cannot be denied. It means that neither they nor I can erase the drama of the situation and avoid the prayer that everything be saved.