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Rookie Priest: Day of sorrow touched by God

Sunday, December 31, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Rev. Jim Farnan had briefly returned to a role from his earlier life as a salesman of janitorial supplies. He was advising the custodian at Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell about how to get the best deal on a top-quality floor scrubber when the first, scant information about an accident reached the rectory.

Linda Liberatore, principal of Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell, greets the Rev. Jim Farnan. The priest counseled her and her family while her father, Matthew Zupsic, was on life support. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Next: Rookies find priests hit the ground running, don't stop all day

All the caller said was that Matthew Zupsic, 75, the father of the parish school principal, had been taken by helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital. Farnan and the parish secretary speculated about a car crash. Helicopter transport was serious.

Farnan, 35, who once owned a janitorial supply firm in McMurray, was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in June. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is following his early ministry.

He had planned to stick close to the parish that Wednesday, the Feast of the Assumption. It celebrates the Catholic belief that when Mary's life on Earth ended, her body was miraculously taken up into heaven along with her soul. Catholics are obligated to attend Mass for the feast day. Extra Masses were scheduled at Our Lady of Fatima.

The pastor, the Rev. David Driesch, had gone to help his mother, who was ill. That left Farnan as the only priest available to the 5,400-member parish. About 200 parishioners heard his noon homily, in which he said that everyone is called to be a saint, on Earth as well as in heaven.

"Mary was a human person, like us in all ways but sin," he said. "Heaven is made not just for God, not just for the angels, but for us as well. For human persons like Mary."

Shortly after Mass, word reached Farnan that Zupsic had fallen, struck his head and was not expected to live. He was on life support to preserve his organs for transplant. Zupsic belonged to another parish, but his daughter, Linda Liberatore, was the faith-filled principal who had brought Our Lady of Fatima School back from the brink of closure. The pastor knew her best, but was already at another hospital.

Farnan immediately called a Catholic chaplain at UPMC Presbyterian, Sister Mary Kay Hammond, and asked her to have the Rev. Sam Esposito, another Catholic chaplain, anoint Zupsic. He canceled his afternoon communion visits and called Zupsic's parish in Monaca to get the names of all the family members. Then he grabbed two plums and a peach to eat as he drove to Pittsburgh.

Two days earlier he had made his first visit to UPMC because a parishioner who had undergone open heart surgery felt a sudden, overwhelming desire to examine his relationship with God. So Farnan had learned where to park, met the chaplains, learned how to check in with the clergy office and how to find the intensive care units.

In a few more days, Farnan would visit the open-heart patient again and thank him for making the call that taught him what he needed to know before the crisis struck. "God used you when you made that call for a priest," Farnan told him.

"I didn't do anything, Father," the man said.

"That's the beauty of it. When you open yourself to God's grace, he will work through you in ways you can't even imagine," Farnan replied.

As he drove to the hospital, Farnan reflected on what he had learned from his constant acquaintance with death. People's faith, and their need for that faith, is starkly revealed when they confront death, he said. Those with faith have hope. Their grief is a sign of love, not of despair. Those without faith are more distraught and confused.

He wondered how hospital social workers comfort those who have no clergy. Even the greatest kindness offers no hope of life beyond the grave.

"For anyone, their sense of salvation is more profound when you have known people in their moment of death and dealt with the family," he said.

"You can relate it to how the apostles and Our Lady must have felt when Christ was in the tomb. Our Lady had an immeasurable capacity for love. How much she must have grieved for her son. As I have been with those who die, and with their loved ones, my capacity for seeing and appreciating that has developed."

When Farnan arrived at the neuro-trauma intensive care unit, he found Antoinette Zupsic, Matthew's wife of 53 years, at his bedside. Her husband had been chipper that morning. He had even spoken of which Mass he would attend that day. Now he lay perfectly still, his head swathed in bandages.

Farnan put his arm around Antoinette's shoulder and had a brief prayer with her. Because Zupsic was in immediate danger of death, Farnan gave him absolution.

He was walking down the corridor to leave when he met the principal, Liberatore, and her sister, Marilyn Chesko, returning from the cafeteria with coffee for their mother. Liberatore burst into tears. Farnan took her into a conference room.

Chesko carried the coffee to her mother, her hands shaking so hard that it nearly spilled. When the women realized that the writer of "Rookie Priest" was at the hospital, they insisted on talking. Farnan was so wonderful to come, they said, and all of the doctors and nurses had been so kind to them. Though their faces were etched with grief, all they could speak of was gratitude.

Liberatore, meanwhile, was pouring out her fears about her father's soul to Farnan and to her husband, Arnie. She loved her father dearly and prayed for him every day, she told Farnan. But he didn't share the deep faith of the women in the family. She didn't know when he had last been to confession.

"Father Jim, when you absolved him, was he really alive?" she asked.

Yes, Farnan replied, he was alive despite what it may have looked like with the ventilator. His sins were absolved through God's love and mercy. Her years of prayers for her father's soul had been answered.

"The sense of peace I felt then was overwhelming," Liberatore said later.

When doctors came to see if Zupsic's organs were suitable for transplant, the entire family joined Farnan and Liberatore in the conference room. They asked themselves how he could have fallen backward down the stairs. They wondered if he had suffered a heart attack or if the knee that had been troubling him had locked and pitched him back. The question was never resolved. His death certificate would say "accidental."

Farnan led the family in praying the rosary, asking the mother of Jesus to "be with us now and at the hour of our death." They recited the glorious mysteries of Mary's life, including her assumption into heaven. They prayed for God to take the soul of Matthew Zupsic, even as he had taken Mary.

The Rev. Jim Farnan jokes with Our Lady of Fatima student Stuart Zerishnek about school lunches. Farnan was ordained in June and now serves the 5,400-member parish. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

They were nearly done when a doctor came to say they could return to Zupsic's room. Farnan said they would be two minutes longer, and they finished the rosary.

The women walked to the room, then quickly backed out. The doctors were doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Zupsic, whose heart had stopped while they prayed. As efforts were made to revive him, the report came back on his organs. Because his heart had stopped once before, there was too much deterioration for transplantation, the doctor said gently. Did they want to stop resuscitation?

Liberatore turned to Farnan, gazing into his eyes with an expression of absolute trust. "I need your help. What do I do?" she asked.

Farnan quickly asked the doctor if resuscitation would be considered "extraordinary means" -- meaning that it merely delayed imminent and inevitable death.

"Yes," the doctor replied.

Farnan told Liberatore they had no moral obligation to continue. Liberatore assured her mother that, "Father Jim says it's OK." Through small sobs, the women gave the word to discontinue.

It was the first time Farnan had been asked for counsel on life support. He was grateful that the doctor didn't give him all the medical facts to evaluate, but had simply confirmed that resuscitation was "extraordinary." The brain damage was too extensive. Liberatore said later that she would have been beside herself without Farnan.

"If Father Jim hadn't been there I would have gone to a phone to find a priest to ask what to do. I would not have felt I could make that decision alone," she said.

The consultation in the hallway took no more than a minute. But while they spoke, Zupsic's heart had resumed beating.

Farnan kept bedside vigil with the family for the next two hours. He led prayer and told them to hold Zupsic's hands as his spirit prepared to leave his body.

Liberatore had told her father's pastor not to come because she had expected death before he could arrive. The hospital chaplain had been faithful and kind but had to leave to tend to a dying child.

She had not expected Farnan and, "I can't imagine what it would have been like not to have had him there," she said later.

"Father Jim has been a priest for such a short time, but I felt his guidance and support showed me a very experienced, spiritual man. He wasn't just saying the right words. He really meant it."

Matthew Zupsic's heart continued to beat for five hours. The doctors believed it was due to an earlier injection to restart his heart. His daughters believed it was because he didn't want to let go.

Driesch arrived from Our Lady of Fatima just after 4 p.m. Farnan stayed for another hour and then left to offer the 7 p.m. Mass. Driesch remained, even though he had a flight to catch early the next morning. He was there when Zupsic died around 8:30 p.m. and led the family in a final prayer.

Farnan had eaten the last plum from his lunch as he crossed the Fort Pitt Bridge on his way back to Hopewell. His Eucharistic fast would begin in less than an hour, and he was famished. He pulled off the Parkway West for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and returned to the parish 20 minutes before Mass.

He gave the same homily he had delivered at noon, but his emphasis had subtly shifted from the importance of being a saint on earth to the glory of life in heaven.

"The privilege of Mary is our privilege," he said.

"We are called to be with God forever. It is a wonderful gift, a wonderful reason for celebration."

When he had finished greeting the last parishioner after Mass, he lingered outside the church to watch the sunset. He was tired, but he thought he might go running.

Throughout the long day, which had been filled with shock and grief, he had seen the hand of God at work. He had felt the Spirit work through him to bring faith, hope, love and peace to others.

"I think this is what I am here for. When you get down to it, priests are just grace junkies," he said.

"I get so much more out of this than I ever give."

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