The lamplight above Fr. Jim Blaney’s bed cast a gentle reflection on the December glass, leaving a soft overlay of the hospital room against the evening darkness. A sweet sacredness filled the space as my friend Tonya and I kept vigil, praying in communion with souls, both earthly and heavenly, during the final hours of Fr. Jim’s life. After invoking the Divine Mercy and praying for all priests, Tonya and I eased into the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.
Four beads in, a woman quietly entered the room and stood at the foot of the bed. I was struck by her calm presence and how she resembled Our Lady of Guadalupe. We paused to greet her and she introduced herself as “Maria,” a parishioner and employee of the hospital. We asked if she would like some time alone with Father. No, she said, she simply wanted to see him and pray. She encouraged us to continue our rosary, so we invited her to join in.
“I know the prayers only in Spanish,” she said.
We assured her Our Lady could make sense of the mingled languages, so Maria settled into a nearby chair and bridged her prayers with ours. Heads bowed, we chanted in harmonious resonance. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee/Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo…
With each recitation, a growing sense of timelessness blanketed the room, as if the Blessed Mother was covering us in her own mantle. Until then, Fr. Jim’s breaths were heavy and labored, like one making a climb up the final, steepest jag of the mountain, but his breathing soon slowed to keep time with the steady cadence of our petitions. It seemed his soul had found peace in the presence of his Mother, to whom he remained devoted as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate priest. Blessed art thou among women/Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres…
I stared intently at each rise and fall of his chest. The silver medal he had worn for nearly fifty years lay next to his heart and glistened in the dim light. HUMILITAS. I AM A PRIEST, it said, surrounding a depiction of hands holding the Eucharist above a chalice. …and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus/y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.
My eyes skimmed the length of Father’s weary body. Maria sat near his feet, her hand resting on them as she prayed. It reminded me of Isaiah 52.7: “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings…” Yes, how lovely this priest who had brought us the good news, who was nearing the end of his arduous ascent, aided by the Blessed Mother. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners/ Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros los pecadores…
Tonya and I sat on either side of Fr. Jim, each holding a hand, as we had the last ten days when we prayed the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet with him. During his most lucid moments, he had chimed in, sometimes only silently moving his lips while resting his eyes, but always with his thumb grazing the tip of his index finger as if pulling along imaginary beads. On this day, however, his hands were at ease, simply open and ready to receive Our Lady’s graces …now and at the hour of our death/ ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.
As we prayed the Mysteries, I reflected on the holiest moments of Fr. Jim’s final journey. I thanked God for the occasion of attending bedside at the beautiful death of a Catholic priest, who lived in persona Christi—now dying the same. I had encountered Christ daily in the broken body of Fr. Jim, in the moments when he was parched and we brought a water-soaked sponge to his lips; when he winced in pain and implored us to lift him; when he weakly raised his right hand to bless those tending him; when he embraced his visiting brothers and sisters in Christ as warmly as he embraced his own sister Mary Blaney Johnson and her husband Gary. I felt blessed to be standing alongside him, so close to the threshold of heaven, watching and waiting as he prepared to step into eternal life.
As soon as we concluded our prayers and kissed our crosses, Mary and Gary arrived to keep watch with Fr. Jim. We left the hospital knowing he was close. Just a few steps more.
Three hours later, Mary summoned us to return.
“The eagle has flown away,” she said. Fr. Jim was finally at peace.
Within minutes, twelve of us had gathered to pray again at his bedside, this time with Fr. Pat Casey, OMI and Fr. Peter Gorges offering the Prayers after Death. Afterward, we each made the Sign of the Cross on Fr. Jim’s forehead and bid him a personal farewell. Selfishly, I didn’t want to let him go. But if I had to, I wanted to send him on his way with a gift, to serve him one last time, and honor him as he had honored us. Tonya wanted the same. So we quietly asked the nurse if we could wash Fr. Jim’s feet. She readily consented and we set about preparing to cleanse the feet of our priest and friend, Papa J.
Gathering two cloths and a small basin of water, we worked in silence to wipe the mountain dust from the well-traveled feet of God’s servant. Over and again I thought, how lovely on the mountain are the feet of him…
At times, I raised my eyes to view the scene continuing to unfold on the evening window. I marveled at being part of a roomful of women—Tonya, myself, Mary, the nurse, and her aide—who carefully and lovingly cleansed Fr. Jim’s body. And as I immersed myself in the stillness and sanctity of the moment, my eyes wept, though my heart leapt in knowing our friend, Fr. Jim Blaney, had reached the summit.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon him. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.