Each of our "African Fathers" had a unique combination of total love, gentleness, ease in the face of suffering and theological strictness. They were each true Fathers.
The priests greeted us with kindness and love. They prayed deep heartfelt prayers over our daughter. And then they took Jon and I too task. They encouraged us to use this tough situation to become better Christians.
We ran into our first African priest seconds after our kid got admitted into the NICU. My husband grabbed my hand and pulled me into Sunday Mass at the hospital. I don't think I've ever been more unwilling to listen to Jesus. I'd already received communion a few hours earlier. My kid just got admitted into the NICU. I decided that I'd more than fulfilled my Sunday obligation. It was time for me to rush home, brush my teeth for the first time in 48 hours and rush back to restart my vigil over my sick newborn.
So when Father A started his homily last Sunday with the question: "Why are you here?" I answered "because my husband made me come!"
In his excited African accent, Father A kept hollering "Why are you here? Why didn't you just stay in bed this morning? What did you expect when you decided to follow Jesus? Tea and cookies!"
He yelled this last line "Tea and Cookies" until it shook the chapel.
(And the answer, of course, is that in order to follow Jesus we have to carry a cross.) But the saying "What did you expect, Tea and Cookies?" has become a humorous mantra thought this first, hard week.
Two hours after Father A's great homily, the Father, a nun, Jon and I were all waiting outside the NICU to preform an emergency baptism on my little girl before she was rushed to Children's Hospital for surgery. Sister Kathy really racked Father A over the coals for having an overly excited homily. "You went over the line, Father," she said. "There were people like the Benjamins in that congregation who have real problems, the parents of very sick children."
Father A started to blush. Jon and I both protested. His homily was great. It was just what I needed to hear. And in that moment, in the hallway, I did feel blessed.
Father A and the two Fathers who ministered to us this week at Children's Hospital, did me a great service. They were kind. They were compassionate. But they also pushed me hard spiritually.
Carry your cross. Pray for others. Give thanks for a Faith that sustains you. "I know you are praying hard, but you need to pray harder.""Forget all those who are being unkind to you. Your energy is so precious right now, you don't have space to deal with that stuff right now. Instead, cherish the people who are helping take care of your children, your spouse and yourself."
The African missionaries are great in a hospital, because they are not scandalized by children suffering. Children in their countries see greater misery all the time. Instead, they remind us to be thankful to the medical profession. They remind us that "tears come at the night, but joy comes in the morning."
Lord God, thank you for the gift of the priesthood.