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New York hospital chaplains preparing for surge in coronavirus cases

SICK
GODONG | BSIP | BSIP via AFP
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Priest confident that the Church will “be there” for those dying alone.

Call Fr. John Maria Devaney’s cell phone and you hear this message: “I know we’re in a hard time, but the good Lord will get us through. … Pray the Rosary, pray the Rosary, pray the Rosary, pray the Rosary again, tell your friends to pray the Rosary. Stay where you are, hunker down, and know that I’m praying for you, and we’re going to do a lot of good work for the Lord in his mercy, and we’re going to save a lot of souls.”

Fr. Devaney is a chaplain at one of New York City’s hospitals, where the news of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be getting only worse.

“Things are changing by the hour,” he said in an interview Monday, when he admitted that he and his fellow priest-chaplains are in a “calm before the storm.”

Indeed, as of Tuesday morning, New York State had 25,665 cases, with at least 157 deaths, according to the New York Times. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the rate of new infections in New York is doubling about every three days. New York-Presbyterian Hospital, down the street from where Fr. Devaney and his fellow Dominican Friars live, had more than 500 coronavirus patients by Sunday morning, the Times reported.

Around the country, hospital chaplains are likewise preparing for an increasing number of cases of infection, hospitalizations, deathbed confessions and the need to console grieving families.

Jesuit Fr. Richard Nichols, who ministers in a in Washington, D.C.-area hospital, which is preparing for an influx of patients, has noticed more staffers praying in the chapel and stopping him in the halls to ask for prayers. And as the hospital institutes much stricter visitor policies, many of the patients spend their days alone, and many are asking to see him.

Fr. Randy Suárez Valenton, a priest of the Diocese of San Jose, California, who is a chaplain at O’Connor Hospital and Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said that although his institution has not yet had too many COVID patients, tension and fear are building.

“The hospital does not allow the priest to get into the room of the COVID-19 patient,” Fr. Suárez said Tuesday. “If I get a request I can only stay outside the room of the patient and do the prayer there.”

He said, however, that he is prepared for to minister the sacraments, even if it means getting close to patients. “The only thing I can do is observe the precautions and pray, which I’m supposed to be doing as a spiritual care provider. If there is a fear — of course, there is — but my faith is more compelling, to provide this. If doctors can show up and deal with the medical treatment of the patient, as a spiritual care provider, I can also do that.”

In New York, Fr. Devaney and his fellow chaplains are expecting a surge in cases.

“One third of New Yorkers are Catholic, so the priest will be very busy when the time comes,” Fr. Devaney said.

Fr. Devaney is one of four Dominican Friars who live at St. Catherine of Siena Church and Priory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a neighborhood with a high concentration of hospitals. Three of the friars work in hospital chaplaincy. Fr. Devaney said that they themselves have had to remain isolated from one another, even though they normally celebrate Mass, pray and eat together.

“We’ve become like Carthusians,” he said, referring to a religious order of hermits.

He said that he recently visited some patients with COVID-19 in an intensive care unit and had to give sacramental absolution from “behind the glass” because of the danger that he himself could become infected. “I could not go in and put my hands on them and anoint them with oil,” he said, but “a priest is still able to absolve sins and give the Apostolic Pardon … I’m still sacramentally able to get them ready for Heaven and show them God’s mercy.”

Due to the vulnerability of the sick, chaplains are being more creative in their care of souls, he said. They are “doing either tele-visits, calling people, using FaceTime, that sort of thing. Or we’re going to emergencies only, such as death beds.”

“The day will come when there are hazmat suits and all those other things, and I probably will do that,” he predicted. If a patient or family member requests to see a priest, “we’ll take it case by case,” he said. “If a family member isn’t allowed to come up and see their family member who’s dying or only has a few minutes to say goodbye, as is happening in Italy, I imagine I will be a bridge between a dying patient and family who can’t see them because there’s quarantine or restrictions.”

He added that chaplains are also trying to support hospital staff, who are already feeling the strains of an increased workload.

“As the surge comes and it escalates, we will respond appropriately, and we will not abandon Catholics in their hour of need,” Fr. Devaney said. “We will be there.”

 

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