ALS diagnosis is a mysterious answer to prayer

By Father Dana Christensen

Father Dana Christensen, parochial vicar, St. Mary of Mercy, Alexandria

The evening of February 27, 2000, I had the immense privilege of meeting a saint. I was on pilgrimage to Rome with a group of seminarians, and we were invited to an audience with St. John Paul II.

While it was exhilarating to meet a personal hero, it was also sad to see him struggling with Parkinson’s disease. He shuffled along instead of walking with a confident gait as he did when young and healthy. His speech was slurred instead of sonorous and crisp. His secretary wiped his lips because he had spittle seeping from the corner of his lips.

All this was hard to see. To many he was a weak old man, and on the outside he was. But looking into his eyes, I saw more. I saw a man of great strength, deep faith, and a dignity befitting a child of God.

Pope St. John Paul II has been one of my many saintly companions, especially since I, like him, have been diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Shortly before Christmas I was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that will slowly take away my ability to walk, talk, swallow and breathe. As of now I am much like St. John Paul was when I met him. My speech is slow and slurred, my hands and arms are weak, and I shuffle along when I walk. My body is weakening, but even as I grow weak physically, God, in His mercy, is strengthening my faith.

One of the characteristics of St. John Paul was his deep Marian devotion. My diagnosis too has a deep connection to Our Lady. It was literally on my way home from a pilgrimage to Fatima, where Our Lady appeared just over 100 years ago, when I learned that I most likely had ALS. I do not believe this was a coincidence. I had told Our Lady in Fatima that I was giving her permission to do whatever it takes to get me to heaven.

I believe this diagnosis is her mysterious answer to my prayer. I also believe the timing was her way of telling me that she is with me, and like she did for her Son, she will stand beside me as I mount the cross chosen for me.

St. Joan of Arc is quoted as saying, “I am not afraid, I was made for this.” I feel much the same way. My whole life, my priestly formation, my priesthood, my prayer, everything has prepared me for this. My whole life has mysteriously prepared me to offer this to God as my share in the cross—a priestly offering. I choose to offer myself to God as a living sacrifice of praise in reparation for sin and for the conversion of sinners.

The battle for souls is real, and praise God, I have been chosen to be a warrior in the fight! I invite you all to join me by offering your own suffering, whatever form it takes, to Jesus through the hands of Mary.

At Fatima, Our Lady taught us a prayer to use when we encounter sufferings that we want to offer to God. It is this:

“Oh my Jesus, I offer this for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Amen.”

Join me in praying this prayer often.

One of the many blessings that has come from my illness is time. Since I cannot work as normal, I can take up a new work—that of prayer. I am able to spend time with Jesus, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, time prayerfully meditating on the word of God, and time praying that prayer that Our Lady has over and over again begged us to pray daily, the holy rosary.

For many of you who are disabled, prayer can be our work. In many ways I am becoming a monk, something I have been prepared for by my association with the Benedictine monks who used to minister in our diocese.

For those of you who are healthy, you too can make prayer a significant part of your life. All of us can at least pray the rosary daily as Our Lady has asked. As a friend often says, “If you’re not praying the rosary, you’re not on the team!” Join me on “Team Mary!” Pray the rosary every day. God knows our world needs it.

Please pray for me, too, especially through the intercession of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, that if it be God’s will I may be completely healed. I am so very grateful for all who are praying for me and helping in so many ways. My family especially has been supportive, including making plans to build a handicap accessible addition to my parent’s home so I can eventually live and pray there and be close to family.

From family to friends to parishioners, so many have been so generous to me. May God reward you all!