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With death hovering near, a new life for Father Field

Despite pancreatic cancer, priest offers message of hope to a caring congregation

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By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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MELROSE - Father Field is having one of his good days.

It's Pentecost Sunday - the birthday of the Christian church - and the pews are packed. The parishioners who took medicine to the Dominican Republic are giving their report. The Kilpatrick family is here for baby Brendan's baptism. And after Mass, the whole congregation will gather out front to pose for its annual photo. Father Field can feel the adrenaline rush, and he is upbeat, funny, and familiar, as he walks the center aisle, clasping his hands and closing his eyes as he sings "Lord, Send Out Your Spirit."

There are bad days, too. On Holy Thursday, Father Field was doubled up on the floor in pain. His vulnerability to infection means he has to wear a mask to visit those who are sick; some weeks, he can't shake hands during the sign of peace, and on rare occasions he even avoids distributing Communion.

The Rev. James A. Field has spent years helping others cope with death and dying. He has anointed the sick, buried the dead, and comforted the bereaved.

But now he is confronting his own mortality, much earlier than he had expected. He is 58 years old and he has pancreatic cancer, an incurable and fast-moving disease that he knows he can't survive. And, in a step that has rallied the Parish of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ around its pastor, Field is bringing the congregation along on his uncommonly public final journey, preaching and writing about each up and down. "This is what I got, and this is how I deal with it," he says. "I'm a teacher, and this is a teachable moment."

Field could have retired or gone on sick leave, but he has chosen to remain with the parish community he loves, and he is using the march of cancer across his body as a text from which to preach on Catholic notions about suffering, hope, and faith.

The parish, in turn, is pitching in as much as Field will allow. When he is feeling well, which is much of the time, he prefers to keep working. When he is weak, parishioners run errands, give rides, and set up the church. And if he is hospitalized, retired priests come say Mass. His longtime pastoral associate, Linda Swett, is planning to have parishioners stay with him in the rectory if that becomes necessary - Field and his 4-year-old Welsh Corgi, Sophia, live by themselves in a house built for four priests and a housekeeper.

"Right away, when I got sick, I knew that I was loved," he says. "After a certain number of hugs and kisses and cards and seeing people with tears in their eyes, you just get the sense, this is how God loves me."

Field is fully aware that his suffering does not make him unique. As he looks out across his congregation, he sees the woman whose daughter is undergoing a preventive double mastectomy; the dad whose son was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq; the widows and widowers, the survivors and the stricken.

But Field isn't sitting in a pew. He's up front, at the pulpit. He's the spiritual leader people look to for comfort and strength when their lives fall apart, but now he's the one in serious trouble.

"It's just part of the daily life of a priest that death is never far away," Field says. "I recognize now that, very often, the dying are teaching me. When you're in those rooms, that's a place where you have to sort it out . . . because we're all going to be there sooner or later."

Field is not angry, saying simply, "For whatever reason, this is on my life's path." And he says he is not scared, but acknowledges, "When I'm actively dying, it may be a deeper struggle."

He avoids the phrase "battling cancer," because he knows it will ultimately defeat his body. But, he says, his Christian faith also teaches him that "death can't win" and that when people die, "I believe we go into the hands of the God who loves us, and what's next, we just can't imagine how wonderful it must be.

"This is a time when you have to figure out - do you believe this or not," he says. "You've been saying this your whole life. Is this really the truth or not? And, so far, it feels like the truth."

Field is a Marblehead native who became a Xaverian brother after attending the Xaverian-run St. John's High School in Shrewsbury. He has spent much of his career as an expert on liturgy, the prayers, and rites of the church. Ordained a diocesan priest in 1990 at age 39, he was the archdiocese's worship office director, advising parishes on liturgical issues, until he was named pastor in Melrose in 2002.

Field is a popular figure - many people drive long distances to worship at his church - and the parish is obviously in pain.

"It has to be unnerving when you call your doctor friend with medical news and she cries," said Dr. Claire McCarthy, an active parishioner, a physician who heads a Jamaica Plain community health center for Children's Hospital, and now Field's healthcare proxy. "But I couldn't help myself, because I knew just how awful the diagnosis was."

McCarthy, like many others at the parish, thought Field would not live long, and she is grateful for small victories, such as his making it to her daughter's first Communion last month.

"So very many people are praying for him, every day -and he is doing better than expected," she said. "Whether or not they are holding his cancer at bay, the prayers definitely seem to be holding him, cushioning him, buoying him somehow."

Field's struggle, and his parish's response, has attracted attention throughout the church family. The Xaverian brothers housed him for weeks when he was too sick to live on his own. A group of nuns in Ipswich - the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur - have taken him on as a prayer cause, as have a variety of friends and strangers. And Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, when told that the Globe was doing this story, sent along a statement saying he is praying for the priest.

"Father Jim Field inspires us all as he responds to the challenges of cancer with great courage and faith," O'Malley said. "The parishioners of Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by way of their support for Father Field, exemplify the care and concern that all Christians are called to demonstrate for their brothers and sisters."

Last summer, Field had radiation treatment daily. In October, an effort at surgery failed when doctors concluded his cancer was inoperable. Now, every two weeks he has chemotherapy. It starts with two hours at Massachusetts General Hospital, then continues for 46 hours in which Field must wear an infusion pump that sends drugs into his body via a port implanted in his chest.

The disease and treatments have left Field with gastrointestinal problems, exhaustion, and occasional pain or wooziness, and he has dropped 55 pounds from his 5'11" frame. Despite that, he says, "Some days, I forget I'm sick."

For the first time in his life, he has insomnia, and that, he says, gives him more time to think.

"When you're awake at 2 in the morning, your alternatives are to watch "Bridezillas," or the vacuum cleaner ads, or to pray," he says. "Sometimes I just go through my life and look at the blessings, the goodness. Honestly, before I was sick, I didn't have time to do that. You take a long lens and look at your life."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.