People on commercial flights are told that in an emergency, adults should put their own oxygen mask on before helping a child.
In other words, people need to take care of themselves in order to be able to take care of someone else.
That’s the principle behind the Jefferson City diocese’s new Priest Wellness Program.
“Basically, the healthier our priests are, the healthier the Church is going to be,” said Kimie Bax, part-time priest wellness coordinator for the diocese. “That’s something we all want.”
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight appointed Mrs. Bax, a registered nurse and member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City, to her new role on July 1.
Mrs. Bax noted that anyone who works toward achieving wellness and balance in their lives will have fewer distractions and more energy for living out their vocation.
That certainly applies to priests. But the giving nature and hectic pace of priestly ministry aren’t always conducive to wellness and balance.
“I see our priests giving so very much of themselves that they can lose sight of taking care of themselves,” said Mrs. Bax.
The diocese recognized the need for the Priest Wellness Program for many reasons. While most people retire at or near age 65, most of the priests here continue to fully function in their ministries until 75. Many may continue serving after that in some capacity.
“With the average age of our active priests being 57 years and the average age of our retired priests at 81 years, the risk is greater for them to experience some type of healthcare crisis or have increased needs due to health changes related to aging,” said Mrs. Bax.
Also, with over 15 international priests serving in this diocese, “the possible need for assistance with maneuvering the healthcare system also exists,” she said.
The Priest Wellness Program, under the direction of the office of Vicar for Priests, is funded by the generous giving to the Catholic Stewardship Appeal (CSA).
Its purpose is to promote, support and advocate for the health and well-being of the diocesan priests through a three-dimensional approach: physical wellness, emotional wellness and professional wellness.
Mrs. Bax’s primary role is to tend to the physical needs of priests who are ailing, to offer support and guidance for priests who are coping with chronic illness or personal crises, or assist those who want to work on making healthier lifestyle choices.
She visits priests in their parishes, when they may be in the hospital, or in a short term or long-term care facility to assess for any health and well-being needs they may have.
She is also available to accompany them to doctor’s visits at their request.
The diocese has stepped up its efforts on this front by providing counseling services for priests and diocesan employees through SupportLinc, offered through Christian Brothers insurance. Counselors are available 24/7 to offer support and guidance with a broad range of challenges. Gala Wolfmeier, diocesan benefits coordinator, is the primary contact for those in need of emotional-wellness support.
Professionally, various diocesan staff are trained and available to be coaches in assisting priests in developing positive skills as leaders of their parishes and ministries.
“We want to help them continue to realize the joy of the Priesthood through this ministry of wellness,” said Mrs. Bax.
No one is required to make use of these services, but she wants the priests to know that “we’re here to help if needed.”
“Each time I visit with them, I hope they are reminded of how much Christ loves them,” she said.
“God is there”
Mrs. Bax grew up in a solidly Christian home in Jefferson City, where she learned that she was loved by Jesus and to help others.
She thought about becoming a doctor but ended up changing her major several times in college before settling on nursing.
“I guess I was drawn to it,” she said. “I felt that was where I was supposed to be, that it’s what I was supposed to be doing.”
She describes her profession in the simplest of terms: “When somebody is sick, a nurse helps you feel better.”
She believes this is holy work carried out in God’s presence.
“The richness of getting to meet people, getting to know their stories and having the opportunity to take care of them when they may be at a very vulnerable time — Christ is there, working through you,” she said.
“But He’s also there when, as a nurse, you’re losing your patience,” she continued. “He’s the One Who gives you the grace to persevere when you need it.
“That’s where I’ll take my head when I’m really challenged by someone — ‘I do this for Him, I do this because He lives within you.’”
Catholic for a reason
Mrs. Bax met her husband Doug in Jefferson City. They were married in St. Peter Church near the State Capitol in 1986.
She entered the Roman Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) at Easter three years later.
“But I didn’t fully embrace it until years later,” she said. “In fact, I kind of dug my heels in against it.”
She received an invitation from St. Peter parish in Jefferson City to take part in the RCIA while she was pregnant with their first son.
“I figured I’d eventually have to help my kids with their religion homework, so I figured I should go through it and at least be informed,” she said.
She had a lot of questions and doubts. There were parts of the Nicene Creed that she avoided saying with the other people at Mass.
One day, she went to Monsignor Donald W. Lammers, who was her pastor, with a litany of objections to Catholic doctrine.
“In his wisdom and his humbleness, he let me talk,” she recalled. “And as I walked out, he handed me a CD of the conversion story of Scott Hahn.”
She listened to the world-renowned Catholic evangelizer, who had embraced Catholic Christianity fully after studying ancient Christian writings in an attempt to debunk the Church’s authority.
“He’s great because he gets it down to where you can really understand it,” she said.
With a better understanding of the Catholic faith in her mind came a willingness to embrace it with her heart.
“I was praying to know and seek the one truth — God’s truth — and I can now rest in the fact that I don’t have to understand all of it, but have faith that this is the Church and the faith that Christ Himself started and meant for us all,” she said.
Her husband, his family and the St. Peter parish community served as an everyday inspiration for her.
“I wouldn’t be Catholic if it weren’t for their witness,” she said. “It wasn’t through their words but through their actions that I saw how important their faith was to them.”
The right questions
Mrs. Bax left nursing for 20 years while raising their four sons.
She returned to the profession part-time five years ago at SSM St. Mary’s Hospital-Jefferson City.
“I’m back in it because it satisfies a calling that I have,” she said. “It’s one of my places of peace and joy, one of my roles in life that settles me.”
She works mostly with in-patient cardiac rehab patients at SSM St. Mary’s.
She helps with post-hospital follow-up care via telephone and visits to nursing homes.
“I’m the ‘naggy’ nurse who calls to ask a lot of questions like ‘Are you weighing yourself every day and taking your medicine as prescribed?’” she said. “If I pick up on something changing, then I am strongly encouraging a call or visit to the doctor. Basically, I’m trying to help avoid going back into the hospital.”
All of this ties nicely into her new role with the diocese, she said.
Sister Kathleen Wegman SSND, diocesan director of pastoral and charitable services, contacted Mrs. Bax this spring about taking on an extra role for the diocese. “Sister and I have been friends for a long time,” said Mrs. Bax. “She knows I’m a nurse and that I have a husband and four sons. I think that might have led her to me because I am well accustomed to men and their sometimes complicated relationship with healthcare.”
Mrs. Bax pointed out that maneuvering the healthcare system can be extremely overwhelming for anyone who is trying to handle it alone.
“I think it helps to have someone to talk with about those things; to have somebody to help think through healthcare questions or decisions that may be facing someone,” she said.
Well and good
Since July 1, Mrs. Bax has been traveling the diocese making individual visits with priests in order to get to know them.
“Wellness is more than physical health,” she noted. “It encompasses the physical, emotional, spiritual and professional aspects of a person’s life.”
“And in order to be well, it has to be something you think about, something you have an awareness of, and something you stay on top of, so that, hopefully, you can avoid a crisis situation,” she said.
She has enjoyed the opportunity to visit with priests in their homes and in the midst of their ministries.
“These guys are awesome!” she said. “It’s been a very enriching experience for me just to sit across from them in their parish office or at their dining-room table.
“There are things I’m learning about them that are flat-out cool!” she said.
“To realize some of the talents and interests they have, some of the experiences they’ve had, maybe as missionaries in other countries ... just the beauty of seeing how their faith is who they are ... that’s added so much to my life in a very short time,” she said.
“Relying on God”
Mrs. Bax said people can help support the priests by praying for them daily, being a friend for them and encouraging them to take care of themselves.
“If you notice that things seem a little off, mention it to them,” she suggested. “Don’t be afraid to ask them if they are feeling OK. Encourage them to get things checked out if they seem like they should.”
She asks for prayers for wisdom and guidance for her as she serves the priests.
“I know I don’t have all the answers to all the questions,” she said. “I’m relying on God to help me. I know that He’s Who has drawn me to this, so I give it over to Him.”