Fr. Starzynski tends to the spiritual amid physical suffering

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Chris McManus drove to the emergency room at Inova Fairfax Hospital as fast as he safely could. He'd just witnessed his father, an Arlington physician for more than 55 years, undergo a massive stroke and had seen him off in an ambulance. A doctor himself, Chris knew the prognosis was not good.

But someone else beat Chris to his father's bedside.

Father Stefan P. Starzynski was watching the nightly news in the rectory of St. Ambrose Church in Annandale when he got a call that Reginald McManus, a longtime parishioner of nearby Holy Spirit Church, was being taken to the hospital.

As one of two Catholic chaplains at Inova, Father Starzynski rushed to the hospital to administer the anointing of the sick and an apostolic blessing to the 85-year-old.

While doctors and nurses care for the physical needs of the ill and injured at Northern Virginia's largest hospital, Father Starzynski and his fellow chaplains tend to another component of healing.

"Humans are body and soul," said Father Starzynski. "So pastoral, spiritual care is at least as important as medicine and operations. It is not an addendum to what the hospital is about, not in conflict. It's all about healing."

A 24/7 ministry

Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde named Father Starzynski chaplain of Inova, with residence at St. Ambrose, last June. But the down-to-earth priest with a sense of humor always had a place in his heart for healing. He helped with the Arlington Healing Ministry for several years and eventually began celebrating healing Masses at his various parish assignments.

"Throughout my whole priesthood I've seen everything through the lens of Jesus the Healer," said Father Starzynski, who most recently served as parochial vicar of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly. "So this is a great fit."

Father Starzynski and Father Michael R. Duesterhaus, parochial vicar of St. Timothy, minister to Catholic patients in the 1,000-bed hospital. According to Amy Johnson, interim chaplain manager in the Inova Pastoral Care Department, about 15 percent of Inova patients are Catholic.

The hospital's 77 chaplains include members of all major religions, including Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and a number of Christian denominations.

"We all work together and respect each other as one team," said Father Starzynski. The chaplaincy "is not a Catholic thing; this is a shared ministry caring for souls."

In the hospital's interfaith chapel, Muslim prayer rugs form a colorful tapestry in one corner, and a Star of David and a dove mark the two respective podiums.

Father Starzinski celebrates Mass in the chapel every Saturday night and on first Fridays and holy days.

Along with anointing the sick, he and Father Duesterhaus - aided by about 25 Catholic volunteers - bring Communion to around 25-50 people daily.

Father Duesterhaus is on duty from 10 p.m. Monday to 10 p.m. Wednesday. Father Starzinski serves as chaplain the rest of the week. Their pagers can go off at any time, indicating there is a medical emergency and a priest is needed immediately. "It is pretty much a 24/7 ministry," he said.

When Father Duesterhaus was out of town recently, Father Starzinski worked 23 days straight.

"You get sleep here and there," Father Starzynski said.

He doesn't have much time to socialize or even attend a movie like he used to. "However when you love what you're doing that's OK," he said. "It's kind of like a son taking care of his aging mother or a mother taking care of her baby. In some ways it does not restrict your freedom but actually makes you more free. It can be freeing knowing exactly what your life is about."

Father Starzinski acknowledged it is not an easy ministry.

"There's a time to be born and a time to die, but some people seem to die before their time: the baby, the young mother, the father who is only 50 years old," he said. "You are bringing comfort, but bringing comfort to a situation where you really feel for the mom or dad, for the person whose life is turned upside down.

"Even in the worst situations, though, you feel you are bringing God's healing. Because without it, it would be so much worse."

One thing that makes the Catholic chaplaincy unique is the sacraments, said Father Starzinski. "If someone is dying, you call a priest because you have a fundamental belief that something is objectively being done in the anointing of the sick, in confession, the Eucharist."

Each day he prays with two or three patients who are dying. Along with administering the anointing of the sick, he recites the Litany of the Saints and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. "One of the most beautiful parts of this ministry is escorting a soul into heaven by prayer," he said.

Prayers - those he recites for patients and those he says when stealing a few solitary minutes in the chapel - fortify him. "Everything has to be rooted in prayer," he said.

Father Starzinski also wants patients to see the beautiful potential of prayer.

"Archbishop Fulton John Sheen said one of the greatest tragedies is wasted suffering," he said. "I believe in redemptive suffering, and I ask people I pray for to pray for me." Hospitals, he added, "are powder kegs of grace."

'Present with people'

It was around 6:15 p.m. on a Thursday when Reginald was admitted to the ER. Doctors soon discovered a massive blood clot in his brain, likely the result of an irregular heartbeat that caused a clot in the heart to break free and move up through the cerebral artery.

"My dad envisioned him on feeding tubes and was thinking about someone needing to care for him and my grandmother (who has Alzheimer's)" around the clock, said Kelsey McManus, one of Chris' four children.

Due to the massive size of the clot, doctors decided the clot-busting medication they'd given him wasn't enough and immediate surgery was needed.

Just about two hours later, scans showed something shocking: The clot had started to dissolve.

The doctors had "never seen anything like it," said Chris. "The drugs may have helped, but it was miraculous to me what happened. It was not supposed to go away without surgery."

"It's unbelievable," said Kelsey. "I believe it was with the Holy Spirit."

Over the next few days, as Reginald's health continued to improve, Father Starzinski visited him multiple times with prayers and Communion.

Father Starzinski was "very, very helpful to me," said Reginald three weeks after the stroke.

"Having Father Stefan there meant a lot to all of us; having Christ there meant a lot to all of us," Chris said.

Although Father Starzinski visits many patients each day, "he has a gift to be present with people," added Kelsey. "His visits never felt rushed."

On the Saturday following his stroke, surrounded by family members, Reginald was well enough to attend Mass celebrated by Father Starzinski in the chapel. Monday he was discharged from the hospital and soon after, with medical clearance, returned to his private practice with Chris.

Looking back on the experience, Reginald believes God had a hand in his healing. And he's grateful for the human hand that brought him God through the sacraments and reached out to his worried family members.

"The good Lord has for some reason suggested that I can continue to be functional," laughed Reginald. "But this is key: Everybody is going to die. I'm going to die, and you're going to die, and we realize that." What we really want while sick or dying, he said, is someone to attend to our spirit.

Some are not freed from pain and illness, but Father Starzinski believes in his ministry's capacity to bring God's healing grace through the power of the sacraments. His job is not "just to make people feel better," he said. Through God, "love and compassion heal."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015