Priest with cancer, who ‘united to Christ on the cross,’ dies
By Karen Mahoney4/2/2007
Catholic Herald (www.chnonline.org)
ASHFORD, Wis. (Catholic Herald) — During his agony in the Garden of Gethesemane, Jesus cried out: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me, but not my will but yours be done.”
For Father Wayne Barta, retired archdiocesan priest in residence at St. Martin Parish, the daily celebration of Mass was his way of uniting his own suffering with that of Jesus. Father Barta died of colon cancer on April 11.
Despite the diagnosis of advanced colon cancer that spread to his lungs and back, the 72-year-old priest was cheerful and positive, while prayerfully blessing all who came to him. A letter in the parish bulletin by Father Barta explained to parishioners the seriousness of his situation.
“Recent medical tests have indicated a moderate cancer growth. However, with the advent of so many new cancer drugs, I am now on a new oral (pill form) of chemotherapy. It won’t eradicate the cancer but will slow its progression, hopefully allowing me to maintain a reasonable quality of life, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for all you good people. As I offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in my weakness, I truly feel united to Christ on the cross. The doctors have not given me any life expectancy time frames. However, God will call me when he wants me.”
Father Barta’s knowledge of God’s love for him enabled him to understand how all things work together for good, he said.
“It is God who gives me the strength to continue on and to bear the disease,” he said. “It does seem to get harder every day, but my goal is to continue to function with daily Mass and confessions on Saturday; through prayer and the help of my caregiver and housekeeper I am able to keep going.”
‘Mass is closest thing to eternity’
A friend to Father Barta since 1985 and by his side since 1991, LeeAnn Schoofs helped with meals, housekeeping, and traveling to appointments. Through his service and giving to others during his suffering, Schoofs understood the depth of his faith.
“He is so dedicated to the Eucharist and eucharistic adoration, and despite his weakness and illnesses, he has always been there for the people,” she said. “He is never too sick or too tired to do what he can for the people. He says that Mass is the closest thing to eternity and he treasures that and feels Mass and confessions are the greatest treasure and honor for a priest.”
The more recent battle with cancer was one of several serious illnesses that Father Barta endured, said Father Neil Zinthefer, pastor of St. Kilian, St. Kilian; St. Martin, Ashford and St. Matthew, Campbellsport,Wis.
Before his friend’s death, Father Zinthefer said, “He suffers from diabetes and had heart surgery years ago,” he said. “He has also had cancer surgery and has been dealing with treatment for a long time. When he announced to the people that his cancer was moving aggressively, he said he was making the Lenten journey with the people and possibly looking at this as his last Lenten journey. He has been very public with letting the people know what is happening and tries as hard as he can to continue with weekday and weekend Masses.”
Those closest to Father Barta compared him to the late Pope John Paul II in the way he offers up his suffering for others.
“He is very much like the pope was, in that he makes his illness a sign for the people,” said Father Zinthefer. “I would hope someday that if I had the same circumstances that I would have the same courage to deal with this; he is very courageous and very dedicated.”
No stranger to miracles
According to Schoofs, while Father Barta was no stranger to suffering, he was also no stranger to the miracles of Jesus. On one occasion, he was hemorrhaging through his nose and tests revealed terminal liver disease.
“The doctors said he had a year to live without a liver transplant,” she said, “After that news some of us spent 12 hours before the Blessed Sacrament and prayed rosaries, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and in the end the doctors said that they couldn’t find anything wrong, and that his liver was fine.”
Another time, tests revealed an aneurysm behind Father Barta’s eye and physicians predicted he would lose his sight. Again friends and family interceded for him. Prior to surgery to take the pressure off his eye, doctors again found nothing wrong.
“Needless to say, we have been begging God for another miracle, but we have been blessed to have him for four years with stage-four cancer,” Schoofs said earlier. “We traveled to New York and visited Archbishop Sheen’s tomb and prayed for the intercession of a miracle – but no matter what happens, there are many graces and we don’t know in what way that God answered our prayers.”
Sense of humor intact
“Still, every Sunday there are tears, but in a way, his illness is preparing us, too,” she said. “I told Father the other day how sad it will be to lose him, but this is better than losing him suddenly as it gives us time for acceptance.”
While a terminal illness can be terrifying, Father Barta’s grace and wry sense of humor led those closest to him to believe that part of him had already gone home and was comfortable in the arms of Jesus.
Schoofs recalled, “recently, we had gone to another priest’s funeral and it reminded me of when I will have to take care of Father Barta’s, and I began to cry. I said to him, ‘Oh, Father, I am never going to live through your funeral,’ and he said, ‘Well, neither am I!’ It was so funny and so quick, I just wouldn’t have expected it; it really cracked me up!”
A bit of levity helped to lighten the burden, even with sacramentals, such as Father Barta’s “hi-test holy water.” While Father Barta was modest regarding the impact of using the old form of blessing the parish holy water, parishioners knew the difference, said Schoofs, and they enjoyed teasing him a bit about it.
“A couple of years ago, we were talking about the two grades of gasoline, regular and hi-test, and we kind of took off from that,” she said. “We call it hi-test because he gives the holy water the exorcism blessing with salt – from his old prayer book.”
Father Barta continued using the old form for blessing the water. As for the power behind the holy water?
“Well, I don’t know what they mean by that, but people have told me that the holy water I bless has more power than the other stuff,” he said. “I like the old form that contains the exorcism and have never stopped using that form.”