Season 6, Clerical Conversations Ep. 25: Cancer
In a world that despises sickness more than sin, a diagnosis of a potentially terminal disease is treated with dread and abhorrence. In the naturalist mindset – the default attitude so to speak of the modern man – the sudden news of a long and painful illness with little or no chance of recovery seems to be the ultimate evil. What usually follows is either the sinking into despair and misery or plunging head-on into unrestrained hedonism in the spirit of carpe diem, enjoying whatever there is left of one’s days in this soon-to-pass earthly life.
Yet, our Catholic faith teaches us that it is not death in itself that is to be feared but rather that kind of death, which surprises the unrepentant sinner. Thus, we pray in the Litany of Saints: from a sudden and unprovided death deliver us, O Lord. Cancer diagnosis more often than not comes out of the blue and this was also true of the experience of one of the best-known veteran priests in the Catholic Traditionalist movement who passed into eternity in 2020.
On this episode of Clerical Conversations, our host Stephen Heiner is joined by the late Fr. Anthony Cekada, a long-time assistant pastor at St. Gertrude the Great Church in West Chester, Ohio for an in-depth discussion of Father’s struggle with a malignant tumour. Although cancer survivors' memoirs are so prolific among bestselling literature that they seem to belong to a sub genre of their own, Father Cekada and Stephen will not take you on any such sentimental trip down memory lane as they discuss a most serious matter of preparing for the unexpected and going through a gruelling treatment, all spiced up with Father’s trademark wit and good humour.
What seemed merely a urinary tract infection at first sight, would soon mean a total re-organisation of the patient’s entire life – the patient in question being extremely busy with each and every kind of priestly activity and beyond like “zoning, permits, accounting, and a bunch of other things they don’t really teach at the seminary” (the lot of any true and zealous Catholic priest in the current crisis). As it is usually the case with this type of disease, there was absolutely no writing on the wall, no indication that Father’s health had been deteriorating. When antibiotics proved ineffective, an appointment with a surgeon had to be scheduled. The scan revealed a shady area in the bladder. Next step was exploratory surgery, an urgent biopsy, and yet another scan.
This was my introduction to the cancer world and all of the ‘thrills and joys’ therein. You hope that the biopsy will come back negative and that everything will be fine, that it will simply be benign but I guess that really wasn’t the case.
It became clear that a consultation with the proper cancer specialist was needed. While the surgeon was an easy-going Jewish man, quite amused with the number of Yiddish expressions Father Cekada managed to acquire in his New York days, the oncologist turned out to be a lapsed Irish Catholic, an older man of kind disposition. The man was a victim of the early post-Vatican II years, being educated by “the worst of the worst,” the Jesuits, who imbued him with one principle, that is to “question everything – including religion,” which the doctor thought was quite a smart idea. Needless to say, Father Cekada was not amused and would use his appointments with him to try to re-awaken whatever was left of the Catholic faith in that physician, doing so as unobtrusively as a priest-turned-patient can.
The diagnosis made by the oncologist seemed to leave no room for any doubt as to the seriousness of Father’s condition:
He said that the pathology report revealed a particularly rare and virulent form of cancer, and it was one that, even though he’d been practicing for I don’t know how many years, he said he rarely saw.
Recommended treatment: a hearty dose of one of the most powerful chemotherapy drugs administered over an extended period of time to prevent the cancer from spreading. Father recalls the words of the oncologist:
Frankly, what I’m going to do Father is poison you. I’m going to put this poison into your veins because that’s how the chemotherapy works. It’s the best that we have for treating this type of cancer but it’s like using hand grenades on a target instead of a rifle. (…) After you recover from the chemo, you’ll have a major surgery to remove the cancer.
What was Fr. Cekada’s reaction to being given a 50-50 chance of survival by the surgeon?
It’s the will of God – you resign to it. (…) You look back with that attitude at what you’ve done with your priesthood right up to this point – and you’ve accomplished this, that, and the other thing. You know you have done some good for the apostolate and the glory of God, and you figure that if this is it, this is it. That at least is how I took it. It takes you a while to assimilate that and to figure things out for the future, to make arrangements etc. in case the worst happens. But you have enough time, so [it’s] fine.
Being both a patient and a priest, Father Cekada shares the intimate ins and outs of his cancer treatment and gradual (as well as painful) recovery from the medical as well as spiritual point of view, proving that even in the post-Vatican II havoc a suffering priest can still affect souls wherever God wishes to place him – be it a doctor’s office or a chemotherapy ward (even in a Jewish hospital on a Sunday morning!).
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