By Tracey Primrose
May 19, 2020 — For 14 years, Fr. Tim Meier, SJ, served as a chaplain with the U.S. Army. He accompanied troops who were experiencing a hellish landscape of sniper attacks, incoming missiles, catastrophic injuries and wrenching loss of life.
That experience has never been more valuable. Today as a chaplain at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Fr. Meier ministers to patients and their families at a time where COVID-19 has added a traumatic layer to the strain and anxiety already faced by sick children and their families.
When he left the military, Fr. Meier planned to work with veterans, but when the opportunity came up at Children’s Hospital, he found himself called in a different direction. Almost immediately after he started working at Children’s, the traumatic stress he experienced during deployment came roaring back.
“My experience working in ministry with desperately ill children and their families is that there is so much powerlessness and unmanageability going on. Every new grief brings up every old grief,” says Fr. Meier.
Although upwards of 50 percent of the patients and their families at Children’s Hospital are Catholic, Fr. Meier is the only Catholic priest on the chaplaincy team. The days are busy. The families who are requesting priests are the ones with gravely ill children.
On a recent day off, Fr. Meier was called to the hospital. A teenage boy was near death, and his parents wanted him to receive Last Rites. While the patient, who was anointed, was not well enough to receive the Eucharist, his parents did. The young man died later that day. “Most Catholics don’t know that Communion is the sacrament of the dying,” Fr. Meier says, “because it is really food for the journey, and that idea is very comforting to me. I feel very honored, humbled and blessed to be able to journey with these families.”
Last fall, Fr. Meier grew close to the family of a 9-month-old baby with a number of devastating health issues. During her months at the hospital, the baby had overcome almost insurmountable odds, and when Fr. Meier left work one Sunday for a few days off, he felt good about the little girl’s prognosis. He returned to the ward on Wednesday and could not find the child’s name on the patient census, so he used the medical record number and a pop up appeared — expired patient.
“I felt gut punched, not least because I did not get to say goodbye to the family, and I had really come to love them. Lo and behold, maybe a week later, I got a call from the family asking me if I would drive 90 minutes away to do the funeral.” He celebrated the child’s funeral Mass and continues to stay in touch with her parents, but that is not the norm.
The position of chaplain is a little odd, according to Fr. Meier, because there can be such an intense, intimate interaction — both spiritually and emotionally — between a chaplain and a family. And then, it ends, because continued contact is not encouraged outside the hospital. When he meets a new family, Fr. Meier tells them, “I’m going to pray that I never see you again because that will mean you’re doing really well.”
In addition to his experience as an army chaplain, Fr. Meier has a doctorate in molecular neurobiology from Stanford. The intersection of military service and neuroscience? For Fr. Meier, it is the exploration of how the human brain processes trauma — from the front lines in Iraq to a pediatric COVID-19 hospital ward in Los Angeles.
Prayer is a large part of his ministry, but so are the resilience skills he deployed in Iraq.
“I found that when I was in Iraq if I could force myself — while the aircraft is lurching because we’re being shot at — to take three mindful breaths in a row, I could experience a slight reduction in stress and terror.”
Several months into a virulent pandemic with no end in sight, Fr. Meier practices mindful breathing on a daily basis. Despite the stress and sadness, he is as committed as ever to this latest tour of duty.
“I believe that the ministry I perform is an occasion to participate in what the great Jesuit historian John O’Malley calls the ‘ministry of consolation.’ That was something important to St. Ignatius and the first Jesuits, and from the first time I heard that phrase, I told myself that’s what I wanted my life to look like.”