For the last few years, I have been assigned to Bristol, Rhode Island. What used to be the Spiritual year house has gradually morphed into a house for retired Columbans. A few months ago, in addition to my assignment as vice-director of the region and AITECE representative in the USA, I became the Superior of the Bristol community. In some ways “house superior” is a traditional role in the Society, but in a Bristol context it is more complex.
I readily admit that much (nearly all) of the actual work of taking care of the 22 residents and six Columbans in institutions nearby is done by a staff of people each of whom seems to me to do more than their job title would suggest. All of the staff people go beyond the ordinary limits of their job description, routinely putting in the extra effort to look out for the best interests of each resident and see that their needs are met.
What is left for me to do? And what is COLUMBAN about it?
Despite having a staff, St. Columban's, Bristol is not officially anything more than a residence for priests. It does not have the legal designation of an “assisted living facility” although our policy is to provide what assistance a man needs to stay out of a nursing home, provided he can 1) live safely at our house with the level of care we provide, and 2) do the tasks that living there requires. I am involved in making the difficult determination about when the right time to transition to more care has come.
When the staff are not on duty, the house bursar or “second man” and I still have to be present for medical or other emergencies that can happen late at night or on the weekends.
I think our presence has a symbolic meaning. Just by being present we are saying to senior Columbans, "You have been playing important part of the Columban story for years, now that you are in the position of dealing with physical limitations, we are not going to just leave you to your own devices."
Despite saying that we are “waiting in joyful hope,” most of us do not like to dwell on end of life issues. But it is certainly improvident not to have legal documents in place such as a will and medical and financial power of attorney documents. Many of the Bristol community have named me on these latter documents, and it is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
I am continually finding I have things to learn from the residents at Bristol. Many of them are more disciplined than I about taking exercise and taking other steps to promote and preserve their health. I also hope that I am learning a few lessons about aging with wisdom and grace and peace that will stand me in good stead tomorrow or the next day or whenever my time comes. But this thought may be dangerously self-delusional!
Columban Fr. John Burger lives and works in Bristol, Rhode Island.