On June 19, the feast of the Sacred Heart, Gloria Lopez lay in a hospital dying with her husband Alfredo at her side. Alfredo asked their daughter to call a priest so that Gloria could receive Last Rites. Alfredo also wanted the priest to marry them, then and there. The couple had married 42 years earlier in Mexico, but not in the Church. It was something that had been bothering them, so they were working with their local parish to prepare to be married in the Church. But Gloria’s battle with cancer took a sudden, unexpected downturn. Doctors believed the end would be soon.
Father Stefan Starzynski’s pager went off and he was told of the unusual request. He has been a fulltime chaplain at the 1,000-bed Inova hospital in the Diocese of Arlington since June 2015 and is the author of Miracles: Healing for a Broken World. Each day, Starzynski prays at the bedside of two or three dying patients. He offers them Anointing of the Sick and the apostolic pardon as part of the Last Rites and will pray the Litany of the Saints, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the Rosary with them. Starzynski also founded the Silent Army (which is only local for now).
“Fulton Sheen said that greatest tragedy is wasted suffering,” he said in an interview. “I ask patients to offer up their sufferings and unite them with Christ on the Cross. That offering is a sword to combat evil and gain salvation of souls. ”
But now, Starzynski was being asked something entirely different than anything he had ever done in his chaplaincy — preside at a deathbed marriage ceremony. “I called the Vicar General — it was after working hours — to ask for permission,” Starzynski shared with me in a text on the day of the event. We had become friends through a previous interview about the Silent Army.
The Vicar General gave his permission if Starzynski believed that Gloria was conscious of the words. He also reminded the priest to be sure there were two witnesses. “Her eyes lit up when the daughter explained that she was going to get married,” Starzynski texted. “I had the husband and wife say the vows, and at end to kiss the bride. Very beautiful. And Gloria will very soon go to God. Daughter and nurse were witnesses!”
With the family’s permission, he sent me a picture of the bedside nuptial. “It brought so much joy for the family!” Starzynski said. “And Gloria is not expected to live through the day. Her last words were her vows. She truly wanted to say them and clearly she did.”
Starzynski also administered Last Rites to Gloria and put a brown scapular on her. The next day, his texts continued after he had stopped by Gloria’s room and found her sitting up and talking. She was able to receive Holy Communion. “Healing graces flow from the sacrament of marriage,” he wrote. “Gloria looks good. Last year at this time they went to pray at Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
When I told Father that I wanted to share this story in an article, he was enthusiastic. “Thank you!” he said. “I have never seen an article about the healing effects of marriage. God knows we are wounded. Maybe God desires to heal deep psychological wounds and even physical wounds in the sacrament of marriage. The idea is that if something is opposed to our salvation, God desires to remove it. Father and mother wounds can very much be opposed to our living our marriage vows, and therefore, are dangers to our salvation. It seems logical that when God meets a couple in good faith that he wants us to ask for the healing graces that flow from the sacrament of marriage to heal deep psychological wounds.”
Gloria went home from the hospital nine days after her deathbed wedding. A few days later, she asked Father Starzynski to come by their house to bless a rosary. She was alert and doing much better. “Death is not in her near future,” he said.
[Editor’s Note: Gloria died four days after this story appeared at the Register. “It really was a deathbed wedding because she was not expected to live through the night,” Starzynski said, "but she was given almost another two months of life. She went to God, married in the Church and her family will always have that.”]