Life to the full
A priest faces his demobilizing illness
By Susanne Janssen
When he was ordained as a young priest in 1992, Robert Dunn was happy to begin his life in the service of God. He imagined working with youth, attracting people to his parish, being a good shepherd. Just eight years later, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and in 2007 he had to move into a nursing home.
Did his dreams shatter? Not at all.
“I think if everything had come out as planned, the results wouldn’t have been as positive as I imagined. In the end, what counts is ‘Thy will be done.’”
Dunn was born and raised in New York, and after high school entered the seminary in the Bronx. He always looked forward to becoming a pastor. Little did he know that this was never going to happen.
While a vicar at Incarnation Parish in New York City, on February 11, 1995 — the Feast of our Lady of Lourdes — he felt that something was going on in his body. He was 29.
“I felt sickly for six months,” he remembers. Lots of medical tests followed, until finally on April 12, 2000 he got the diagnosis: MS. “First I was almost ecstatic, because now we knew what the problem was,” Dunn remembers.
It is usually better to deal with a problem when you are able to name it. However, the road was steep: he had to adjust his life to the illness and letting things go.
He spent 11 years in the parish, but eventually it became more difficult for him to walk. In 2007 he had to move into the Jeanne Jugan Residence in the Bronx, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
A new home
“Can you imagine how you feel when you have to move into a nursing home at age 41?” he asks.
Dunn, however, didn’t fight with God, and the question “Why me?” didn’t overwhelm him. “It is what it is,” was his pragmatic approach. Instead of thinking about all things he couldn’t do anymore, he focused on what he still could do.
And that took a different direction: less meetings, less conferences, more personal but even more meaningful encounters. People come to see the priest who, despite his illness, irradiates light and hope.
“I was busier at the Jeanne Jugan Residence than I would ever have been in a normal parish,” he says. And who would have ever thought that he would go to Europe 18 times, especially to Lourdes, “seeing the world in a wheelchair”?
After he moved, he was still able to drive, but at a certain point, he had to give up this personal independence too.
When celebrating Mass at the nursing home, people are stunned by the peace and joy that he brings to the altar. For Dunn, it is a consequence of doing God’s will, or better: working hard on it.
“Some people ask me, ‘Do you ever have a bad day?’ and I say, ‘Yes, I’m having one right now.’”
In a deeper way, he came to a greater abandonment to God: “I can always ask him to give me the ability to do a certain task, if not, I won’t care about it — it is certainly not his will.”
This also runs counter to modern thought that, as human beings, we are able to do anything we want: “That’s an illusion, only God can do that.” If we tell children this lie — that they can do anything — they turn 21 and have no idea what to do with life, he fears.
He had to admit that he could not do anything he wanted. His ability to dedicate himself fully to a parish got lost, as well as the possibility to reach places that are not wheelchair-accessible. Teaching religion classes, playing baseball with youth, or just visiting his parishioners became more and more out of reach.
Piety and partying
But God opened another door. Starting with a pilgrimage to Lourdes, he realized that he could give hope to all those who lived in similar conditions. They believed him. They could not say, “You can talk easily; you don’t know how I’m feeling.”
He did know the feeling of not being able to control your own body anymore. But he didn’t give up. He led others to pilgrimages to Lourdes, which are not at all marked by suffering, but instead “great piety and great partying,” Dunn says. To him, faith means living life in its fullness.
Life as it is
His arrival at the nursing home, however, was a hard step to take. In his philosophy, these hardships should not be watered down but faced: “Suffering is an injustice, everybody on earth refuses the cross, but actually, people can relate to that, because everybody experiences this kind of suffering,” he says.
The risen Jesus doesn’t speak to people, if not as a consequence of the cross. That’s where he thinks that the religious movements come into the spotlight and play an important part: “A lot of them speak about the sanctification of ordinary life — our life as it is, not as it should be.”
Dunn became a Chaplain of the Order of Malta, founded 908 years ago and dedicated to “the defense of the faith and care for the poor and the sick.” His ministry at the nursing home fits in well with his spiritual care for the people facing physical disabilities and old age.
His relationship with God gives him courage to face everyday challenges, where even opening a bottle or a cough drop is a monumental task. However, he considers his faith a gift: “There are a lot of people who offer self-empowering platitudes to people who have MS. They have good intentions, but it doesn’t help in the long run.”
He asks himself often, “How could you do it without a spiritual basis?” There are moments when he wonders about assisted death for people like him, and he understands that others without the same support system he has would not think life is worth living or that they are a burden. But his faith tells him not to give in to thoughts like that.
How does he go ahead? “The point is to keep going,” is his answer. “I may not know the reason of everything in this life, but one day, when I get up there, I won’t have to ask, ‘Why me?’ Because I believe that there is a plan that God has for me.”
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