For Father Dana Christensen, 43, of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Christmastime diagnosis of degenerative Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was one that left him “immediately panicked and feeling like being emotionally kicked in the gut.”
The Register spoke to Father Christensen about his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, of which there is no known cure. He also discussed the response of his parish community and the larger Church community, as well as facing suffering, spiritual darkness and surrender to God’s will, all the while possessing a profound appreciation of his priestly vocation.
Could you provide a quick overview of your vocation story?
I am one of those rare birds who has wanted to be a priest since I can remember, and even before. Family legend tells me that I was playing Mass and giving my great-grandparents “communion” before I can remember. After high school, because of fear, I took a year off and then went to seminary. I did my philosophy at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, and theology at Kenrick[-Glennon] Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, during the Archbishop [Raymond] Burke days. These years in St. Louis were blessed days where I got to know my friend and mentor Cardinal Burke, who is a great encouragement to me.
Currently I am pastor of three rural parishes in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, chaplain to a monastery of traditional discalced Carmelite nuns and chaplain to the local fire department.
What drove you toward seeking medical diagnosis?
In July I started noticing fasciculations (muscle twitching) in my left arm and hand. After seeing a number of doctors I landed in neurology, where they did numerous tests. ALS is one of those diseases that doesn’t have a “positive” test. Rather, they have to rule all other possibilities out, so there are many tests to undergo. After these tests, I went on a personal pilgrimage to Fatima that had been planned for quite some time. It was a fruitful pilgrimage — one that in hindsight was more providential than I knew at the time.
It was as I was driving from Minneapolis to my home in Alexandria, South Dakota, that I was informed via phone that the working diagnosis was ALS. As you might imagine, I was immediately panicked and felt like I was emotionally kicked in the gut. I’ve never had a physical reaction to bad news like this, but there I was, trying to keep it together. It’s hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. In my priestly ministry, I have often been with people in the midst of tragedy, death and bad diagnoses. I always thought I understood, or was wise in my advice. Now I know I was naïve. When the cross presents itself suddenly, there is no way to be prepared, nor is there a “wise” thing to say.
I find it amazing that the working diagnosis came when it did, on the heels of my time in Fatima. I am convinced that it was no coincidence. Our Lady, like the good mother she is, was preparing me for this, and she showed her hand of protection. A very kind and humble sacristan said to me on my last night in Fatima after the candlelight procession, “You may have come to Fatima alone, but you do not leave alone. Our Lady goes with you.” How true that has been for me. Our Lady of Fatima has accompanied me in this journey. I also told Our Lady in Fatima, “You have my permission to do whatever it takes to make me a saint.” I believe my diagnosis is an answer to that prayer. It’s not the answer I wanted or expected, but it is the way Jesus has chosen for me to become little, humble, pure and holy. I do not doubt that all of this is a mysterious grace of Fatima.
For the next month, I was in a deep darkness. Fear, panic and depression was my daily bread. I found it hard to pray, and the Lord seemed far away. One of the ways I found my way through this was the “Surrender Novena.” A priest friend sent me a copy, and it was a lifesaver. It taught me to trust again and surrender myself to Jesus completely.
Eventually I went to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, and it was there that the diagnosis was confirmed. That was shortly before Christmas. Since I went public with my diagnosis, the support is overwhelming. My family has been so supportive — I couldn’t ask for a better family in this time. Their strength strengthens me and occasionally moves me to tears. My parishes and the nuns to whom I am chaplain have also been incredibly supportive and eager to help.
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