As medical first responders are working overtime throughout the United States, caring for people infected with the novel coronavirus, a team of “spiritual first responders” has been established in Chicago to minister the sacraments to the sick, especially those in danger of death.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has formed a team of 24 priests—all vetted for health concerns—to be on call and respond to requests for the “last rites” for patients dying of COVID-19.
It’s a response not only to the increased need for priests at a critical time, but also a way to provide pastoral care at a time when many hospitals are restricting visitors.
“I think that for individuals and families, it really gives the sense of comfort and peace to know in this moment they’re not alone,” Fr. Matt O’Donnell, pastor of St. Columbanus parish in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. As in so many situations these days when a COVID-19 patient is administered Anointing of the Sick, O’Donnell recently ministered to a patient with no family members allowed into the hospital. Only a nurse was in the room, and O’Donnell was covered with personal protective equipment: a protective jumpsuit, a face mask, plastic glasses, a hair net, and latex gloves.
But during the sacrament, the patient is not alone, O’Donnell, 33, told the newspaper. “The Church is present to that person at that moment.”
O’Donnell credited his bishop, Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, for establishing the response team to assure patients who “are in a very vulnerable state of their life” that they are not alone.
While family members of those in imminent danger of death normally would see a priest from their local parish respond to a call for the final sacrament, for COVID-19 patients, pastors must notify the archdiocese of such a request, and then a priest from the team is dispatched.
When the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent, the archdiocese put out a call for priests to volunteer. Church leaders were aware that COVID-19 was a particular threat to those over the age of 60–many elderly priests in northern Italy had already succumbed to the illness—so volunteers had to be under that age and have no chronic illness.
“The archdiocese, in consolation with medical professionals, gave the priests a 2 1/2 hour training on the proper protocols and supplied them with protective equipment,” the Tribune reported.
”We’re going to be the first responders on the spiritual side for Catholics in Cook and Lake county,” Fr. Manuel Dorantes, 36, of Buena Vista told the paper. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be the 24 of us on the front lines.”
“In our Catholic tradition, to have the last rites is a privilege and a deep desire for a person to make their peace with God before they meet God,” said Chicago auxiliary bishop Joseph Perry. “We do believe that the sacrament is very, very important when a person is dying, and they have a right to it.”
For Fr. O’Donnell, the experience of being on the “spiritual front lines” has deepened his commitment.
“The risk has been explained to us,” he told the Tribune, “but all of us realize that this is what our priesthood is meant to be about. It’s to bring Christ to people and to bring a sense of hope to people [who] might otherwise be in a place of despair.”