“Do not neglect the gift you have.”
~ St. Paul
Our skills lab for nursing fundamentals starts at 7:00 a.m., and so students frequently have trouble staying awake during our tedious PowerPoints and videos. We try to keep them engaged – regaling the students with hilarious anecdotes from our own years as staff nurses, for example – but there’s only so much you can do to make things like bed baths and body mechanics interesting.
Nobody sleeps on injections day however. Eyes are open wide; attention is rapt. “This is important,” their demeanor suggests. “We’re learning to give shots.”
They’re right – it isimportant. Of course, we think that everything we teach our beginning nursing students is important, yet there’s no denying that shots are different. Not only does it involve the administration of potent medications – important enough in itself – giving shots also involves jabbing strangers with sharp objects.
The surprising thing, however, is that the teaching part isn’t all that difficult – in fact, it’s actually a lot of fun. Each new detail is like a revelation to the students, and we nursing instructors get a kick out of seeing their reactions. We put syringes and needles in their hands – wonder of wonders! The students watch us demonstrate proper technique by administering injections to manikins – fascinating!
And then the moment comes they’ve all been waiting for: Stabbing a needle into a vial of fluid, drawing up a mock dose of medication into a syringe, and giving that first shot – into an injection pad, granted, but still an honest-to-goodness shot!
It’s all very Montessori-esque and kinesthetic, as the learning unfolds manually, hands on, and not solely by way of abstract whys and wherefores. After the students’ initial lab experience, they will practice – lots of practice, on the manikins and injection pads, and maybe oranges and hot dogs – and they will make the skill their own. Eventually, each student will provide a return demonstration (on a manikin), and only those students who perform the skill safely will be permitted to attempt a real injection on a real patient.
Frankly, that’s when the true challenge comes for the nursing instructor. Teaching shots in the lab is one thing; coaching students to give actual shots to people they’ve just met is quite another.
We’re teaching injections right now at my school of nursing, so all this stuff was in the back of mind when I was at Mass the other day and our assistant pastor reminded us that he’d only been ordained for a year. Thus, a little more than a year ago, Father would’ve still been in the seminary chapel, practicing the Eucharistic Canon as a transitional deacon, and anticipating his first real Mass on ordination day. It got me thinking: What an exciting and strange thing it must be to teach men to say Mass. What an exalted privilege. And lots of fun to boot – probably one of the best parts of teaching future priests.
Sure, seminaries have to instruct men how to preach and teach, how to counsel and collaborate, and how to run a parish – the Code of Canon Law demands as much, and it’s what you’d expect. But lay people and deacons receive formation in such matters as well, and they often carry out those duties as a part of their ministries. What sets priestly formation apart, among other things, are those dimensions that are specifically geared to the “sacred power (sacra potestas)” conferred at ordination – which, for the priest, includes especially the power to confect the Eucharist. The power, that is, to make God.
For that’s what the word “confect” means – to put something together. In the case of the Mass, it’s the priest putting together bread and wine, along with his spoken words and intention, and, voila!, there’s God himself on the altar! It’s a miracle every time, regardless of how routine it might become for us – or even for the priest. And that’s where I was thinking the parallels between teaching nurses and teaching priests are particularly noteworthy.
I mean, I was already picking up on a correlation in the instruction arena – both groups of educators guiding their respective students in the mechanics of future privileged duties, and delighting in their charges’ anticipation of the day they themselves would be able to fulfill those duties. Moreover, there are additional similarities with regards to the interior preparation naturally accompanying such practical instruction – instilling in our students the attitudes and dispositions that will facilitate a lifetime of service to the people entrusted to their care.
Finally, there’s also a parallel with regards to the day – for the nursing student, the first real shot; the priest, the first real Mass. No more pretending in the lab or seminary; no more dry runs and rehearsals. This is it – the time has come. The new priests will surely have rattled nerves considering what they’re about to undertake. Do seminary instructors have to coach their students at that point like I do mine? Urging them to project a confidence they don’t possess yet, relying instead on our confidence in them?
But that’s about it with regards to the analogies, I’m afraid, for there’s no comparing the actual tasks at hand. Giving a shot correctly and well – even the first time – is imperative for the recipient and the student nurse alike, and for obvious reasons. But saying Mass? Calling down the host of heaven, and traversing millennia to drag into the present Calvary’s awful paradox; holding up created matter, and commanding it to become the Creator himself – this is what the priest does, even that very first time he stumbles and falters his way through the Eucharistic Prayer.
And he’ll be doing it again and again, probably daily, and for the rest of his life. I know nurses can lose touch with the passion for care and service that drove them to nursing school in the first place, and we have to actively guard against that. Do priests have to do the same? Can they forget, in other words, their first love?
Pope John Paul II thought so, which is evident in his apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. “Live the mystery that has been placed in your hands,” St. John Paul wrote, calling to mind the charge given priests in the Rite of Ordination, “when the offerings of the holy people for the eucharistic sacrifice are placed in his hands.” That mystery is the Lord Jesus himself, of course, who is the source and summit of the Christian life, and whom the priest is directed to enflesh in a particular and irreplaceable way through his life and ministry. The Pope continued:
For this to be so, there is need for great vigilance and lively awareness. Once again, the Rite of Ordination introduces these words with this recommendation: “Beware of what you will be doing.”
“Beware,” the Rite warns – these are dire matters indeed.
Please join me in praying for our priests. We all require the medicine God provides us through their hands; they, in turn, deserve our unflagging support and gratitude.