by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
To write about the final days of Sister Dianna Ortiz’s life is beyond sad. For those who have not heard, Dianna passed away early this morning after a short illness; my apologies for conveying word of it in such an impersonal way.
Actually, her illness and devastating diagnosis of an inoperable cancer has taken place almost too quickly to comprehend at this moment. Three weeks ago a member of our Assisi Community – of which Dianna has been a part for 25 years – insisted that she go to an emergency room for persistent and increasingly painful stomach pain. In rapid succession, Dianna was hospitalized, discovered to have a serious abdominal blockage and biopsied, revealing the cancer. She was designated for chemotherapy to reduce the tumor but when her symptoms continued to increase, she underwent surgery and the inoperable status of the cancer was discovered. All in less than three weeks!
It is said that our parents’ final legacy is their acceptance of death. Surely this can be said of anyone close to us who walks bravely through the dying process. It is most certainly true in the case of our dear sister – friend – community member – and exemplar. After the initial shock of this rapid series of events, Dianna seemed to call on a deep well of faith, acceptance and resignation as she faced the inevitability of her situation.
No doubt all of us who have known Dianna from the time of her horrendous experience in Guatemala were not only shocked but near desperation thinking of this still-young loved one having to suffer in another terrible way. Once again, our question is: Why, Why O God!
But as the last few days of relative comfort unfolded and we were able to visit Dianna in the hospital, all of us came away awed by her serene state of mind, especially her concern for loved ones – her elderly mother and extended family in New Mexico, dear friends in her Ursuline religious community, and the wide, wide circle of those who had walked with her on her amazing journey. She made good-bye phone calls to as many as possible of those special people as her strength permitted during those few precious hours before she was no longer able to do so.
One shining moment sums up for me Dianna’s everlasting legacy to all of us. On Sunday, February 14, the doctors advised Marie Dennis and me that as soon as possible we should celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick with her. Let me first say that this encounter with the Lord reveals something of the unimaginable beauty in His loving care for us. To quote just one of the consoling and encouraging prayers of this Sacrament which sums up that beauty: “Father in heaven, through this holy anointing grant our dear Dianna comfort in her suffering. When she is afraid, give her courage; when afflicted, give her patience; when dejected, afford her hope; and when alone, assure her of the support of your holy people. We ask this in the name of Him who also walked this path, Christ, Our Savior.”
Dianna received our anointing with attention and gratitude. She repeatedly spoke of conversations she was having with God, and her abiding conviction that He/She is Mercy itself and gave thanks for the numerous people who had graced her life. Literally she ministered to Marie and to me, who had gone to be ministers for her. Personally, as a priest for many years and having been at the bedside of countless numbers of dying people, I never experienced what I did that Sunday morning. God for me was almost palpably present thanks to the spirit of this dear person who has now left us.
The great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner, was asked near the end of his life if he still believed all the things he had written about God. His answer helps us appreciate what we were witnessing as Dianna Ortiz passes from this life into eternity. He said: “One thing I’m sure of – that when I die I will fall into the arms of a loving God.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.