The beginnings of the nursing profession are rooted from the human desire and need to care. Caring is an innate aspect of people. As nurses work towards the improvement of health, some form of divine intervention influence other people from other professions to appreciate nursing and really move towards the nursing profession.
Fr. Dennis Gonzales (Nurse cum Priest) is not an exception to this calling. His vocation in life is to care for others. In 1993, Fr. Dennis finished his BS Nursing degree at Notre Dame University in Cotabato City. He had a stint at the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development-Department of Science and Technology (PCHRD-DOST), Manila before moving to the US in the early 2000. He worked as an RN in different healthcare facilities in Washington, DC, including a hospice. While working, he pursued a Master’s degree in Theology at the Washington Theological Union as a lay student. Then, an inspiration to become a priest set in. He gave himself a year of careful discernment before he decided to finally enter St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida for the formation program. On May 4, 2013, Fr. Dennis was ordained to the sacred order of priesthood by Bishop Gerald Michael Barbarito at the Palm Beach’s Cathedral of Saint Ignatius Loyola.
At present, Fr. Dennis is a Parochial Vicar of St. Helen’s Church of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida. As we engage in prayer and reflection for the season of Lent, this is perhaps a perfect time to learn from Fr. Dennis’s life of selflessness and service towards others.
What are some of the benefits of being a Nurse and a Catholic priest?
Let me start by saying that God always prepares us for the next step ahead. As we reflect and reminisce on the past, we can be awestruck with the things that transpired in our lives: the challenges that beset us, the events that happened, planned or unplanned and the people that crossed our paths. All of those occasions took place to prepare us for where we would come to be and be the person we ought to become. Things happen for a reason. That is how God works. He knows us more than we know ourselves. He has a perfect visibility of where we are headed towards. The passing of time allows us to connect the pieces of God’s wonderful work. It allows us to make sense of our own journey in this road called LIFE.
I firmly believe that Nursing prepared me for my priestly ministry. Before I headed to Florida to join the Diocese of Palm Beach, I worked as a nurse in different areas of healthcare: research, long term, hospice and hospital. Yes, I tried them all!
With my education and experience as a nurse, I matured both professionally and personally. I witnessed the difficulties and challenges of life brought about by illness. In our infirmities, we become vulnerable. When we care for patients and their families, it also affords us to look at our own vulnerabilities. We examine our own lives. We ask various questions – Where I am heading. What am I doing? What is my worth as a person? What now? This familiar scenario I encountered as a nurse is also similar to what I encounter in my priestly ministry.
The parish I am affiliated with in Vero Beach, Florida is composed of more than 5,000 registered families. A few thousands more include visitors and unregistered churchgoers. Many of our parishioners came from different places in the Northeast side of the US and Canada who would call Vero Beach their new home. The sunshine in Florida makes it one of the most desired havens for retirees. Separation, adjustment, and, at times, isolation are common concerns for the elderly. My nursing background has tremendously helped me in understanding their situations, including family dynamics that occur in this pivotal time.
I frequently use every encounter with people, especially when I celebrate the Holy Mass and other Sacraments (e.g., Anointing of the Sick) as a sacred opportunity to connect and reconnect God into their lives. When I walk in the hospital as a priest, I am bringing with me my nursing experience and knowledge in dealing with the sick. Yes, those therapeutic communication techniques as presence, kind-firmness, and opening leads, among others come along very handy!
Part of my reflection in my pastoral ministry is my familiarity with the hardships of the sick and their families. People’s responses to illness serve as my model of understanding other challenges of life. Illness is a poverty of health. We all experience poverty that may appear in other forms and shapes. It may be financial, social or relational poverty. Our faith can be tested in adversities or when we are “poor”. We ask pertinent questions about God. I remember an eight-year-old child who asked me, “Why would God allow my mother to have cancer?” Even with my solid background in Theology, existential questions are difficult to answer. However, my experience as a nurse in dealing with suffering and death helps me respond to life questions in a corporeal and perceptible ways. I am able to embody a Theological explanation into the realities of life through Nursing. Nursing gives a human trace to theological ideas about God and our relationship with Him. God always comes to life. He always wants to access our human senses and imagination. He wants to be seen, to be touched. In our loving service to others, we allow God to become incarnate and alive in flesh.
Nursing allows me to see visibly how God works in those instances that shaken our faith. Despite the pain of illness, I have witnessed how God inspires a nurse to care for the sick. God’s presence becomes more comprehensible through the nurse’s presence and compassion. Indeed, the caring and healing experiences in my priestly ministry are not distinct from my experiences as a Nurse. Care for others is now demonstrated in a new and different role. Truly, it is beneficial to be a priest and a nurse at the same time.
How does your nursing background come into play and reinforce your parish leadership?
As a Parochial Vicar (assistant to the pastor), I have minimal responsibilities concerning organizational or fiscal administration of the parish. I am extremely grateful! My leadership comes into play as a minister and as a spiritual leader. I journey with the faithful in their life of faith. These include celebrating the Sacraments and other worship services. I also lead them in outreach programs such as organizing a Filipino community, and raising needed funds for individuals and community (e.g., Haiyan). The kind of leadership exercised by a priest is his authority to inspire people and to make them increase and grow as a person. We can only do this by looking at each person in his/her entirety. This is a Nursing approach.
Pastoral leadership is patterned after that of Jesus’. One of the poignant points in His ministry was caring and healing the sick, touching those who were outcast or being judged. He healed them not only physically, but also emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Jesus touched the untouchables. The leper shown in the Gospel was not only healed from leprosy. He was also brought back to the community. He was freed from the isolation of being stereotyped as a sinner and unclean. Jesus’ ministerial approach was holistic. This is the core and foundation of my spiritual leadership in the parish. It is also built upon the realms of healing and compassion introduced by Nursing. Our proficiency as nurses allows us the authority to guide patients and their families on their path to full recovery.
The Words of the Gospel are resonated in the Nursing Profession. Nursing is about caring, promoting health and preserving life. When nurses take the Nightingale Pledge, we promise “before God and in the presence of this assembly to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.” These words also speak so much of the charism of my priestly ministry and priestly leadership.
Tell us about your involvement in nursing or health related initiatives.
I am not formally/officially involved in any Nursing organization for any professional advancement initiatives. My involvement comes into play in my capacity as a priest. I sit as a member of the Bioethics Committee of our local hospital. I also am often called as a resource on end of life decisions, especially when perceived or actual conflicts with the Church’s teaching and medical regimens arise. I am surrounded by an extremely supportive Filipino community, many of whom are healthcare professionals. I am involved not only as their spiritual leader, but also as a friend celebrating with them important milestones in their lives. My path to Nursing and my calling to the priestly ministry, which is a healing vocation in itself, have brought tremendous joys in my life. The distinctiveness of both vocations binding within my person a single entity, has allowed me to reach different people and various organizations, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Nursing has helped me as I strive to be a humble and a caring servant to the people whom I am called to serve.