Cancer, chemo and COVID-19.
Father Paul Hartley’s 40th year of Priesthood has heaped challenge upon challenge.
At least he can laugh about it.
“I got over COVID in a hurry!” he stated. “COVID didn’t have a chance going into my system with all the stuff I have going into me.
“Mosquitos were dying around me!” he added.
Fr. Hartley, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Montgomery City, St. Patrick Parish in Jonesburg and Church of the Resurrection Parish in Wellsville, received a cancer diagnosis near the end of June.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight placed him on medical leave so he could focus on his treatment.
Fr. Hartley underwent radiation therapy and is now about halfway through a regimen of 12 chemotherapy infusions.
“It’s not fun,” he acknowledged in a Sept. 17 interview. “But what’s nice about it is all the support I’ve received from the three parishes I’m at.
“The spiritual stuff is just as important as what the doctors are doing,” he noted. “Hearing from them and knowing they’re praying for me is keeping my spirits up and giving me a lot of relief from things I might otherwise be experiencing if I didn’t have those prayers.”
His healthcare professionals understand that, too.
“My oncologist is Catholic, so he certainly gets it,” said Fr. Hartley.
The priest receives chemotherapy infusions every other week. His two sisters take turns staying with him during his chemo weeks.
His doctors have modified his treatments in order to cut back on the side effects. This has been helpful.
Fr. Hartley is living in Montgomery City but away from his rectory, which needs repairs before he can move back into it.
He offers Mass privately but cannot do so publicly “because I’m just too weak at times,” he said. “That’s something that I really miss more than anything else.”
He’s grateful to the priests who have been celebrating Mass for his parishioners while he’s on medical leave.
Fr. Hartley and his sister tested positive for COVID-19 the last week of August, “but I’m through that now,” he said.
He is praying for full recovery from cancer and the side effects of the treatment.
“So I can resume my priestly duties as I want to,” he said. “I really do miss not having weekly contact with my people.”
Current and past parishioners are staying in touch with him. He appreciates that very much.
“It’s not the same as being there with them,” he noted, “but I do feel connected, such that there isn’t such a sense of separation or distance.”
He visited Immaculate Conception Church in Montgomery City the weekend of Aug. 14-15. He concelebrated the Mass as his limited strength would allow him, and “talked a little bit” to the people there.
“It was so great just to see people’s faces again,” he said.
He hopes to make similar visits to the parishioners in Jonesburg and Wellsville sometime soon.
The time alone has made Fr. Hartley more acutely aware of the spiritual responsibilities that come with a priestly calling.
“As you go through this kind of thing, you realize the depth of your Priesthood means not just being in the public eye all the time but even more in the spiritual relationship you have with your people,” he said.
“Those spiritual ties are so important — so that you keep your people in mind and in your heart every day, even though you can’t see them,” he added.
The fact that they’ve shown him so much kindness and love during his treatment has deepened that bond.
“I can’t even express how grateful I am to everyone for what they’ve done and what they continue to do for me,” he said.
A Boonville native and graduate of Ss. Peter and Paul School there, Fr. Hartley got hit by a car when he was 5 and woke up from a coma on Easter Sunday.
He felt called to Priesthood from that time forward.
At the time of his priestly ordination 40 years ago, he set about “trying to make every place I go a little better” and putting into daily practice the admonition, “O priest, offer this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.”
He has ministered in Jefferson City; Rhineland; Tipton; Shelbina and Clarence; Owensville and Belle; Linn; Macon, Bevier, Shelbina and Clarence; Kahoka, St. Patrick and Wayland; Glasgow and Slater; and since July in Montgomery City, Jonesburg and Wellsville.
Last year, while offering the first publicly celebrated Mass in St. Mary Church in Slater in seven weeks, he preached to his parishioners: “Let us resolve never to take the Eucharist for granted, but see it as a true gift of Christ Himself, given out of His love for us and for our souls.
“We have the responsibility to meet the spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ,” he also declared. “In this way, the Body of Christ continues to grow as person by person, the faith is shared.”
Fr. Hartley often turns to the Blessed Mother for intercession in heaven, followed by his patron saints and many others at the heavenly banquet who have helped him in the past.
“I have all kinds of devotions to many different saints,” he said. “I spread it around. If somebody is busy, there will be somebody else on the line.”
He looks forward to finishing his treatments, regaining his strength, getting back together with his parishioners and joining them in thanking God “for the rest of my life.”
“With all of my heart, may God bless you all!” he said.