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Spiritual support group formed for those with life-threatening illness

02 PAGE 6.22.17_Sandoval.trinityDeacon Christoph Sandoval is pictured with a representation of the Trinity that captures the spirit of a new outreach ministry for people experiencing life-threatening illness. (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

June 22, 2017
Christina Gray

People faced with a life-threatening illness share an experience not unlike Jesus’ agony in the garden, according to the leader of a new spiritual support group for people with cancer, coronary artery disease, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other chronic or terminal conditions.

“When a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, they are in a real sense entering into the Garden of Gethsemane,” said Deacon Christoph Sandoval, leader of Strength for the Journey, a free, drop-in spiritual support group that met for the first time at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco on June 2.

That meeting included two women living with the HIV virus, a person with Stage 4 cancer and another he described as “dying without a diagnosis.”

The first-of-its-kind ministry in the Archdiocese of San Francisco will be held from 1-2:30 p.m. on the first Friday of each month in the cathedral’s Msgr. Bowe Room.

Sandoval is a counselor and group facilitator who has for years personally ministered to the sick in local hospitals, hospices and homes. His own advancing age – he’ll be 68 this year – convinced him to expand his reach and offer a model for other parishes to follow.

“What I have found is difficult for people who are actively dying or entering into a life-threatening illness is when they do it without God,” he told Catholic San Francisco.

Unfortunately, there is not much spiritual care for people living with these illnesses beyond what Catholic hospital or prison chaplains offer, he said.

Universal questions about life come at the point of a life-threatening diagnosis, said Deacon Sandoval.

“A sudden diagnosis raises the specter that the journey on the planet is coming to an end or may be coming to an end,” he said. “Unknown things are now going to be happening to you that are beyond your control.”

Deacon Sandoval teamed with Mercy Sister Elaine Stahl, a former hospice nurse on staff at the cathedral, to offer the drop-in groups as a “sacred space to process issues of powerlessness, paralysis and emotional pain at the foot of the cross.”

“Visits to the hospital where you are stripped of your garments and you are left naked,” he said, “All of these things have corollaries and parallels in the Stations of the Cross above us.”

While not limited to Catholics, the drop-in group is guided by Catholic teaching and includes help preparing an Advanced Health Care Directive in light of Catholic principles.

Sandoval chose an image of the Trinity, now on display at St. Mary’s Cathedral, as an emblem to promote the support group. The journey is really to walk with the three persons of the Trinity, he said.

Accepting Jesus as “divine physician” who offers healing, meaning and the consolation of the Catholic faith can help transform fear, anger and confusion into peace and strength for the journey, said Deacon Sandoval.

“People begin to get taste of heaven and give language to that instead of staying locked into their loss,” he said.

Strength for the Journey ministry, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Msgr. Bowe room, July 7, 1-2:30 p.m. This is a new, monthly support group for those with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, HIV, stroke. Sessions provide spiritual support, as well as guidance on Catholic teaching and the preparation of health care directives for medical care. No charge. Deacon Christoph Sandoval facilitates. For further details, please contact Sister Elaine Stahl, (415) 567-2020, ext. 218; estahl@stmarycathedralsf.org.

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