“The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me.”


A girl bends forward towards a flower bush

Have you ever been entrusted with a sacred responsibility?

I remember the day somebody first gave me a job. It was when I was about six. My grandfather had a clothes shop in Omagh in Ireland. And my job on Saturday mornings was to watch my grandfather serve customers in the shop. And then when one of them bought something my grandfather would take the money from the customer, write the receipt and very solemnly hand both to me. It was then my solemn responsibility to carry the money and the receipt to the cash desk, wait while the money was counted and the receipt stamped and then carry the receipt back and give it to the customer. At the time, it seemed like the best job in the world in the biggest shop in the world. And at the end of the day, I walked home ten foot tall with pride and with five shillings in my pocket and I felt like a real man. Of course I now know that was just my grandfather’s way of being kind to me, giving my mother a day off from looking after me and supplementing my pocket money. But I will never forget that feeling of having been entrusted with a sacred responsibility.

But have you ever failed at a sacred responsibility?
About fifteen years ago, when I worked in a mission hospital, a twelve-year-old girl called Marissa came to see me in my office. And she had a very serious heart valve disease which was making her very ill. But we knew that there was an operation available in another country, in Trinidad, which could make her better and save her life. But we also knew that she would have to wait three months to get the operation. So, we had three months in which we had to try to keep her alive.

So she came to me in my office, held my hand, looked into my eyes and said: “Please doctor, I am afraid to die and I want to feel well. Please help me. Promise me you’ll do your very best.”
I promised her that I would indeed do my Very, Very Best.

After that I saw her nearly every day. And every time she came, she brought me a flower – always red . All that time, I watched her blood tests like a hawk and I carefully changed her medicines and we did everything we possibly could to keep her in the best possible condition for the operation.
And, for two months she did very well.

Then, three weeks before the operation was due, she started getting worse.

We tried everything we knew.

But nothing worked.

And she died.

- In my hospital
- On my watch.
- Under my care.
- With my name on her head-board.

I don’t know how her parents felt, but I was devastated. It was the lowest point in my medical career. The day she died I cried for the first time in thirty years. I wanted to give up medicine right then. All I wanted to do was go home and cry.

I went to confession and the priest said this to me. ‘Go to work tomorrow. Look into the waiting room and see all the patients there and ask yourself in your heart, will these people be helped or harmed if you give up medicine?’
I did what he suggested and I saw that, even though I would never forget Marissa, there were many other people who needed the service and had no other place to go.

And now that I hear confessions myself, I have come to know that there are many people in the world who carry the burden forever of having failed a sacred responsibility and feel that there is no way that they can now mend what they have done or failed to do. And I find myself saying to them what was said to me.
‘Honour forever the sacred responsibility you have failed. And in that honour, accept and fulfil the sacred responsibilities God will continue to give you in the future.’

“The spirit of the Lord has been given to us, for he has anointed us.”

Perhaps this week we can witness to our faith in God who calls us into our responsibilities in life.

Paul O'Reilly SJ