Most of the exciting things I have done in my life are things I never planned, anticipated, or even imagined as possibilities until the opportunity was presented to me. One thing I did prepare for, though, and anticipate doing throughout most of my life, was to become a teacher. In high school when I began to love God, religious education, Catholicism, and the Church, I knew I wanted to become a religion teacher in a Catholic high school hoping to be a witness of faith and hope like a few special teachers were for me.
In 2017, when I was in the last year of my teaching degree at the University of Toronto, I attended CCO’s annual Rise Up conference. I didn't have great expectations for any dramatic, faith-filled experiences, but I did have one hope: that I would be inspired to have a deeper devotion to pray the rosary. After one session, I was feeling particularly inspired but realized that I had forgotten to bring a rosary to the conference. I circled the tables of vendors, recruiters, and religious orders, looking for a free rosary. Finally, I found some on a table with a dark green helmet and a camouflage rucksack. The man in charge of the table introduced himself, but I didn’t process much of what he said because I was mostly focused on my new rosary, but at the end of the conversation, in addition to the rosary, I left with a pamphlet about military chaplaincy and an invitation to come back if anything from our conversation or in the pamphlet resonated with me throughout the conference.
I offered the pamphlet to my friend who was in the military as a medic in the Reserves. Instead, she informed me that I had been talking to Bishop Scott McCaig, the bishop of the Military Ordinariate, and urged me to consider becoming a military chaplain myself. Throughout the next few days of the conference, I thought I was going crazy because I couldn’t stop thinking of the possibility of becoming a military chaplain. Something in my heart was beginning to grow quickly, and it was a transformation of this old and constant dream of becoming a teacher into a new, unanticipated, and unfamiliar invitation to pursue becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate in the Canadian Armed Forces.
The recruitment process advanced quickly over the next few months as I applied to the military through their education program for chaplains (called the SEELM program). I was accepted into the three-year Masters program at Regis College in Toronto and into the SEELM program pending the rest of the recruitment process, and I was ready to begin studying as a military chaplain-in-training in September 2018.
A few weeks before classes began, I received an email from the military medical staff stating that because of my food allergies (which were so many and so severe that I had to have an EpiPen on me at all times), I did not meet the medical standard, thus disqualifying me from being a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces.
I was shattered. I had spent the past eight months praying, discerning, and believing that God was calling me to serve Him by serving those who serve our country. I had had so much consolation during my application and recruitment process, and I couldn't understand how I could have thought that God was calling me to a type of work I was medically incapable of doing. In my distress, I wrote to Bishop Scott and his vocations team, and they all reassured me not to give up hope. They also provided me with a mentor chaplain, who also tried to reassure me not to give up the recruitment process and to begin the Master of Divinity program as planned.
Still feeling lost and confused, I booked an appointment with my old allergy doctor to see if there could be any hope for me. I had recently made some changes to my diet and noticed that a lot of issues with my immune system had improved, so I thought maybe my allergies also had improved, and if they had improved enough that I wouldn’t need an EpiPen anymore, then maybe I could still be in the military.
For years I had been allergic to seeds and nuts, and as time had gone on, instead of outgrowing the allergies, I found myself with more food sensitivities, including all seafood and some fruits. Now I got my allergies tested, hoping to see at least some improvement, but to my surprise and amazement, my allergies to nuts, seeds, and some fruits were all coming up negative. The only inconclusive test was to my most severe allergy: shellfish. The doctor told me to come back for a follow-up appointment so I could consume small amounts of shellfish periodically and be monitored by her and another doctor to verify if I still had this allergy.
Five days before this final appointment, I was in one of my classes and noticed my face feeling flushed. It was a familiar feeling, and I soon noticed hives developing on parts of my face and my hands. I took some allergy medication, but it didn’t help. I used my EpiPen and went to the hospital, and the ER doctor and I concluded that there must have been some cross-contamination of shellfish in the vegetable sushi rolls I had eaten just before class. I left the ER feeling that I had no hope of being able to overcome my allergy, and thus, I prepared to give up this new dream of becoming a military chaplain.
However, my doctor reassured me and encouraged me to come in for my follow-up appointment so we could at least see the severity of the allergy. Her office was in a Catholic hospital with a chapel, so on the day of the appointment, thinking I had arrived early, I headed to the chapel to say a quick prayer. As I knelt before the tabernacle, I prayed for strength to be able to bear bad news and to endure another reaction and for the grace to let go of the dream of becoming a military chaplain. I also prayed for hope and courage to continue my Masters even without the military chaplaincy as my motivation. I began to tear up, and to conclude my prayer, I turned to an app on my phone to find a prayer to St. Joseph since I was in a hospital named after him. As I scrolled through the prayers, I was struck by one entitled "St. Raphael Prayer for Healing". I decided to pray it, and just as I said the final "Amen", my phone rang. It was the receptionist telling me I was late for my appointment!
At my appointment, the doctor was gracious, and as I told her my fears, she reassured me that I was just going to eat shrimp little by little, and if nothing happened, I would be able to consume a bit more, and in that way we would conclude my threshold for shellfish. She checked my vitals, and the first thing I did was place a small piece of shrimp on my tongue for a moment, then remove it from my mouth. We waited for 30 minutes, and nothing happened. I then tried to consume a small piece of shrimp, and after 45 minutes, nothing happened. I consumed more pieces and waited in between each consumption. My vitals remained healthy, and not a single hive broke out.
The test continued for four hours until I was able to consume a whole piece of shrimp (for the first time in my life) and see not even the slightest sign of an allergic reaction. My doctors and I were both shocked, especially considering what we had presumed was a severe reaction to some seafood just a few days before! My doctor wrote a clearance letter to the military so I could submit a medical appeal and be reconsidered for membership in the Canadian Armed Forces. It felt like a medical miracle, the miracle I needed to pass my medical exam and be accepted into the Canadian Armed Forces as a chaplain!
To the military, however, the miracle wasn’t easily accepted. The medical appeal process took almost exactly two years, and there were times when I questioned if I should give up. But those two years gave me the time to grow in patience and trust in God. In February of 2020, I received the news that my medical appeal was accepted, and I'm now on track to complete the SEELM program and become a fully trained chaplain.
I am still in awe and wonder that after nearly ten years of having severe food allergies, I seemed to have been healed just when I needed it most. It also feels like a miracle that I was able to endure the two-and-a-half-year recruitment process with little hope that it was all going to work out. I'm grateful to God for the countless instances of healing His love and grace have given me in mind, body, and soul, and I hope and pray that in recounting the gratitude for all God has done for me, I will be able to serve as an instrument of peace and God's healing love ever more generously.
Virginia-Ann Mervar is currently working as a Lay Pastoral Associate at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Toronto, completing her parish internship phase of the SEELM Chaplain program for the Canadian Armed Forces.
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