March 3, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A U.S. Catholic priest is counting his blessings – including the support of the communities he has shepherded the last five years – following his recent diagnosis with a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
“The way of the cross that Jesus is inviting me to walk will not be easy, but He and His holy Mother Mary will uphold me. I continue to do my best to surrender myself to Jesus knowing that He will take care of everything,” the Rev. Dana Christensen posted on his personal Facebook page Dec. 21.
Christensen, 42, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, earlier that week.
“ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord,” according to the ALS Association website. “The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their demise. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe.”
While there is no cure for ALS, he is taking medications that may slow its progress, and he is engaged in clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“I am personally at peace with this, although I have my moments,” he wrote Dec. 21. “I am convinced that this is a mysterious gift from God through the hands of Our Lady of Fatima to bring me to salvation and entrust me with the mission to live my priesthood in a new way.”
Christensen, who has been otherwise healthy all his life, began to notice that things were not right in July. It started with muscle twitching and changes to his voice. Initially, he saw his primary care physician, who sent him to a neurologist, where a series of tests were conducted, with an attempt to rule out ALS and other serious diseases.
“I really didn’t realize how serious it was until I got the phone call the end of October telling me the working diagnosis was ALS,” he said. “Then things got real serious, real fast.”
Christensen called the timing of that phone call “providential,” as he received it as he journeyed home from a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, where Catholics believe that Mary appeared to three children, predicting the future of the world and calling upon Christians to pray the rosary daily and make sacrifices on behalf of sinners.
“I see in (the timing of the call) the protection of Our Blessed Mother Mary,” Christensen said.
But his acceptance of the diagnosis has not been without struggle.
“After the first diagnosis, I went through what I call a ‘period of freaking out,’” including a deep depression, panic attacks and fear, the priest shared. “However, with time and lots of prayer, I have come to have peace about it. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God has allowed this for my own growth in holiness and is an opportunity to help others grow as well. I believe God will and is using this for good. I trust in Him.”
In some ways, Christensen said the diagnosis has made him a better priest.
“I thought I knew what to say and do for (those who have received bad news about their health), but once I was the one receiving that news, I realized how naive I had been. Until we get the bad news ourselves, we have no idea what it is like,” he said.
Christensen said that his health has revealed a call from God to “practice what I preach.”
“I often preach about being confident in God’s Mercy and trusting His plan for our lives,” he said. “Now I have to put it into practice.”
On Jan. 10, the Catholic Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Christensen told his congregation of a puzzling inscription over a doorway in Greece that says, “If you die before you die, when you die, you will not die.”
The priest explained that, in baptism, Christians are “buried” in water and rise up to live their lives differently.
With his voice wavering from the effects of his ALS, Christensen told parishioners, “If, all of our life, we take up our cross and die daily to ourselves, if we choose God’s will instead of our own, if we accept all of the daily deaths that come to us, whether it be grief, whether it be illness, whether it be any number of daily dyings that come to us, if we live those as Jesus did, if we allow Him to die in us, then we have nothing to fear. For, when our death comes, we will have already died, and all that will be left for us is to live eternally.”
Following delivery of that sermon, Christensen shared that “a priest always preaches to himself first and foremost,” and that it was “a good summation of how I see this. It helps me to not fear death, because of having already died with Christ, what is there to fear?”
Christensen continues to pastor the Catholic parishes in Alexandria, Emery and Bridgewater between appointments with a variety of doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he will undergo experimental treatment for ALS.
In his initial Facebook post, Christensen asked followers to “to pray for a miraculous healing through the intercession of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen using the following prayer:
Eternal Father, You alone grant us every blessing in Heaven and on earth, through the redemptive mission of Your Divine Son, Jesus Christ, and by the working of the Holy Spirit. If it be according to Your Will, glorify Your servant, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, by granting the favor I now request through his prayerful intercession (in a miraculous healing for Fr. Christensen). I make this prayer confidently through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
“I believe in miracles, and as (God) did for the leper who cried out to Him, ‘Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean, (Luke 5:12),’ He can also heal me,” Christensen continued.
Sheen “was one of the greatest preachers in modern Catholicism in these United States, and was really the first to use television to preach the Gospel,” Christensen explained recently. “One of the ways the Church uses to decide if a person is worthy of sainthood is for unexplained miracles to happen through their intercession in heaven. So, often when a miracle is desired, we turn to those being considered for sainthood, asking them to pray for us in heaven. Since we know from Sacred Scripture that God is a God of the living, and that all in heaven are alive in Christ, and that the saints in heaven intercede for us on earth, we ask them to pray for us just as we ask those living on earth to pray for us.”
Acknowledging that, typically, ALS is a “death sentence,” Christensen continued in his initial post that he has surrendered to what will become of him.
“As in all things, not my will, but His be done,” he wrote. “I accept whatever He has in store for me, and I offer it to Jesus through the hands of Mary, in reparation for my own sins and the sins of the whole world, and for the salvation of sinners.”
Recently, Christensen shared that he had given Jesus and his mother, Mary, “permission to do whatever it takes to make me a saint.”
“I believe that this is a mysterious answer to this prayer,” he said. “I believe that Jesus is allowing me to be united to Him in His suffering, so that I may be united with Him in His glory.”
Admitting he is “a proud man,” Christensen also suggested that his ALS is an attempt by God to humble him, “to become little and in need of help to teach me that He is everything. It is only in becoming weak that we are made strong in Jesus,” he said.
Christensen attributed his outward strength and optimism in the wake of his daunting diagnosis to “God and his grace working through others.”
“It is astounding to me that people from literally around the world are praying for me,” he said.
Though his strength and grace in the face of medical uncertainty have been noted by parishioners and others in the area, Christensen also asked that the faithful pray for his continued surrender to what will be, as well as for the comfort of his family, who have been instrumental in his care thus far.
“By our prayers you will accompany me on my own way of the cross,” he said.
To help with whatever care Christensen may need, local parishioners are spearheading additional practical aid. A fund has been created to offset the expenses of experimental treatment that isn’t covered by insurance at Security State Bank in Alexandria. Those wishing to contribute to the fund can make deposits to the Padre Christensen Fund at the bank.
The funds, according to a press release, will cover “experimental drugs or ethical stem cell treatments, travel to and from appointments, lodging, skilled in-home nursing” and other future expenses related to Christensen’s care. Those with questions regarding fundraising efforts are invited to contact Camille Davies (605-933-0574 or [email protected]) or Don Wenande (605-770-0595 or [email protected]). In addition to the bank fund, “Padre’s Fight” t-shirts and sweatshirts are for sale.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Alexandria Herald and The Emery Enterprise. It is republished here by permission of the author.