Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Deacon Chris Masla would bring Communion to John Domingo, director of religious education at St. John the Apostle, Virginia Beach, every Sunday while the latter recovered from surgery at the Princess Anne Health and Rehabilitation Center in 2018. The surgery followed Domingo being diagnosed with osteomyelitis. Deacon Masla will be ordained a priest Saturday, June 1. (Photo/Don Domingo)

In the past, when John Domingo, director of religious education at St. John the Apostle, Virginia Beach, asked candidates and confirmands their favorite psalms, he encouraged them to think beyond the best-known ones rather than to gravitate immediately toward Psalm 23. 

“I’d say, just consider for a moment,” he said. “There are so many other psalms.” 

Now, however, Domingo said, he has gained a new appreciation for the long familiar words, “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” 

It’s the word “walk” that has taken on a deeper layer of meaning, he said. It’s a word that he no longer takes for granted, after a medical crisis last summer left him facing the possibility that he might never do so again. 

Last June, Domingo woke up one morning with sudden, severe back pain. He went to a nearby Patient First, but the staff there referred him to the emergency room at Sentara Princess Anne. From there, he was sent on to Sentara Norfolk General. 

“In the space of a day, I went from just going into a Patient First, to being admitted to Norfolk General,” Domingo said. “I didn’t know what was going on, or what to think.” 

Domingo, 47, did not know that he — a man who has spent his entire adult life guiding others on their spiritual paths — would be embarking on a six-week journey of his own, discovering a new appreciation for the Church and spreading the message of his faith in unexpected places. 

‘A forest can’t support you’ 

Initially, doctors were unsure as to what was causing Domingo’s pain, but, after a series of tests, they determined that he was suffering from discitis and from osteomyelitis, a somewhat rare bone infection. 

Domingo said he was surprised when, after his diagnosis, he was scheduled for a second MRI but that the timing proved fortuitous: the test revealed that the infected part of Domingo’s disc was beginning to protrude, putting pressure on his spinal cord. He was taken in for emergency surgery, in which part of his spine was removed and two titanium rods were inserted. 

“I knew the surgery had worked because I didn’t feel the pain anymore,” he said. 

The trauma of the illness and surgery, however, still left him with a degree of paralysis. After his discharge from the hospital, he was transferred to Princess Anne Health and Rehabilitation Center. 

“That’s where I relearned how to walk,” he said. 

Relearning to walk was a humbling experience, he said, but Domingo credits the steady stream of visitors and the prayers of family, friends and fellow parishioners with lending him strength throughout his recovery. 

“I received visits from seven priests, three deacons and three seminarians,” Domingo said. “The joke was, whenever anyone on staff saw a man in black, they knew he was there to see me.” 

Even on his first day at the rehab center, Domingo saw a familiar face in Michelle Broderick, a candidate from one of his RCIA classes. 

“I said, ‘Michelle, what are you doing here?’ And she said, ‘I’m the rehab manger here.’  It felt like such a coincidence — almost like a God moment — seeing her there.” 

Domingo said the support he received left him with a new sense of gratitude for the Church.

“So often people say, ‘Why do I need the Church? Why can’t I just go and pray in the forest somewhere?’ And, of course, you can do that. But a forest doesn’t support you. A forest doesn’t visit you … and that’s the beauty of the Church. If everyone spent their time praying in the forest, we wouldn’t be able to support each other,” Domingo said. 

‘I just work for a church’ 

Domingo has spent his professional life working in religious education, serving at three parishes in Virginia Beach: as youth minster at St. Gregory the Great (1993-1998); as director of religious education at St. Matthew (1997-2005); and as director of religious education at St. John since 2005. 

Thus, he’s no stranger to speaking openly about his faith, a trait that proved providential during his stay at the hospital and rehab center. 

The visits from friends and parishioners — as well as the abundance of prayer cards he received — elicited the curiosity of the medical staff, prompting a host of questions and conversations about faith, God and the power of the prayer. 

“Are you a celebrity?” Domingo recalled one nurse asking. 

“No,” Domingo replied. “I just work for a church.”

One of the physical therapists, Domingo recalled, was just coming into his room when she saw that he was taking Communion. She stepped out for a moment, but when she returned, she confided in Domingo that although her boyfriend was Catholic, she wasn’t sure what she thought about religion. 

“She knew I work for a church, and she asked, ‘But what is it you do, exactly?’ I told her, ‘You know how you get excited when you see someone taking a small step physically? Well, I get excited when I see someone take a small step spiritually.’  And she said, ‘Oh. OK.’” 

His occupational therapist, Domingo said, was a strong evangelical Christian. During one of their conversations about faith, she began to cry. When he asked her what was wrong, she told him that everything that he had said was just what her pastor had said in his sermon the previous Sunday. 

On another occasion, a staff member who was bringing in his lunch found him praying with a few visiting parishioners and asked to join them. 

“It was incredible how many faith conversations were initiated from even the smallest things,” he said. “I liked to say I was doing ecumenical work for the Church.”   

Deacon Chris Masla, who will be ordained a priest on Saturday, June 1, was assigned to St. John for the summer and brought Communion to Domingo each Sunday during his recovery.  

“There were a lot of (Roman) collars coming in,” the deacon said, with a laugh. “It did garner attention.” 

“Having so many people come in did have an effect on the staff,” he recalled. “It seemed to lead people to open up and talk about their faith. John was evangelizing even from his hospital bed.”

Small mercies, everyday miracles

Now that Domingo has recovered, it’s the mundane moments and small miracles, he said, that resonate most in his memory. 

Domingo said he especially remembers watching from the window of the rehabilitation center as people milled about on the sidewalk or came and went into the Dairy Queen across street, thinking of how he once took such things for granted. He has a new appreciation for such small blessings as knowing what the weather is like outside. 

“Everyone told me it was so hot last summer, but I didn’t know,” he said.  

Domingo is grateful most of all for what he termed “the small miracles” he encountered throughout his illness and recovery through the hands of the doctors, nurses and therapists, for the timeliness of his second MRI and even for fact that his illness occurred during the summer when he didn’t have classes to prepare. But most of all, he said, he is grateful for the support he received from friends and parishioners. 

“I see it as a miracle. It’s all because people had been praying. The love of the people of St. John’s was overwhelming. … I learned that God is still faithful during our times of suffering, that God doesn’t abandon us,” he said. 

Domingo is back to work and walking without a cane. From looking at him, he said, many don’t even know that he was ever ill, that those six weeks even happened. 

 “After my surgery had taken place, one of the doctors said to me, ‘You’re pretty lucky — you could have been a paraplegic,’” he said. 

Although there are certain things his doctor told him he will never be able to do. 

“The doctor said, ‘You will never be able to sky dive, you can’t do contact sports and you can’t run a marathon.’” 

Domingo paused and smiled. “And I said, ‘I’m OK with that.’”