Present for the Overwhelmed

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

As a volunteer disaster chaplain in New York City, Fr. Joe Parrish is always ready to help those reeling from devastating losses to find their footing and take first steps after a fire, flood, or gas explosion.

This week, however, he’s gearing up in his clerical collar and official green vest to help those who might find exactly what they came for: a close encounter with Pope Francis. Some might have trouble functioning and need a stable presence to keep them safe.

“People are generally just overcome with emotion because they just saw the pope,” the Rev. Parrish said. “I can imagine all kinds of scenarios.”

As usual, this retired priest from the Diocese of New Jersey has no idea where he will be until he’s needed. Even the pope’s exact route has been a tightly guarded secret for security reasons.

When Parrish gets the nod, it might be to the United Nations, where public fanfare and strong emotions are sure to surround the pope’s morning address to the world. Or he could be summoned to Central Park, where Francis will process at 5 p.m., or inside Madison Square Garden, where he’ll celebrate Mass an hour later. Fr. Parrish will go to wherever he is needed.

Should Parrish find someone distraught or rendered immobile by the moment, his plan will be to help them return to a state in which they can make wise decisions and avoid the danger that comes with being out of one’s head. He might pray with the person, but it’s not likely.

“We actually rarely pray with people,” Parrish said. “People pray when they’re calm and collected or have a specific point of concern or issue. Generally when people are overcome, they just sort of — they shut down. They don’t know what to do. And they’re not safe, not to themselves or anybody else, if they’re standing at the corner of 5th Avenue and 110th Street and they can’t move.”

Providing help in these moments becomes a matter of calmly guiding a person, step by step from overwhelmed to coping. It involves being a pastoral presence when no one else is there to do it.

In the wake of disaster, for instance, other priests say a Mass to grieve the dead, Parrish said. They’re trained to lead a service, but not necessarily to be present with people. That’s where Parrish comes in.

“I’m the religious person who helps care for the family and also fends off the TV crews,” Parrish said with a chuckle. “It’s kind of an odd ministry.”

For Parrish, chaplaincy provides a way in retirement to represent Christ and his church in the world. He’s been a chaplain to detained, undocumented immigrants at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center in New Jersey since his days as a parish priest at St. John’s Church in Elizabeth, where he served for 24 years.

Though he retired from congregational ministry two years ago, he still takes a few disaster chaplaincy assignments every month. He lives in Manhattan and finds his city of 8.4 million can almost always use his help.

When this week’s opportunity came up, he needed no convincing. Being on scene for the pope’s visit is exciting even for the chaplain, who discerns in the pope a powerful presence. He expects chaplains of every denomination feel the same way and will turn out to be near him.

“Spiritual moments are kind of our specialty,” Parrish said.

Image of Fr. Joe Parrish by Julia Hanna

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