Like living in a firehouse, says one priest, who describes "getting the call, rushing out, and coming back."
Just weeks after the Archdiocese of Chicago assembled a team of priests set aside to give special blessings to COVID-19 patients in hospital, the Archdiocese of Boston has announced a similar initiative.
Thirty priests are being deployed to visit patients in the dangerous setting of COVID-19 intensive care units to ensure that they receive the Sacrament of the Sick in case they do not survive the illness.
“We are very grateful to the priests who have volunteered to serve in this ministry, and we ask everyone to pray for them, their mission and their safety,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley wrote in a post on his blog.
The priests, all under 45 and without preexisting medical conditions, are organized in teams of two, living in empty rectories close to various hospitals.
They will serve exclusively in this ministry throughout the remainder of the health crisis, according to the Boston Pilot, newspaper of the archdiocese.
M.C. Sullivan, chief healthcare ethicist of the archdiocese, said she had heard from clinical staff and healthcare leaders about the need for such chaplains. A former nurse, she told WGBH that she leaned on her medical background to convince hospitals, many of whom initially rejected the idea, that the process would be safe for patients, hospital staff and the priests themselves.
Hospitals have “severely reduced” access to their facilities and minimized staff contact with patients, she said. Some hospitals are not allowing visitors, and many are reluctant to allow priests in to provide the Sacrament of the Sick.
Forty-five hospitals ended up agreeing to allow the special chaplains.
“We are making it possible for (patients) to have the Sacrament of the Sick, even if their condition or the regulations in the hospital make that difficult to happen,” Sullivan told the Pilot.
Over 80 priests participated in an initial training session, which explained how to follow hospital guidelines; how to avoid close contact with patients; and how to maintain social distancing at home.
She said she thinks the initiative is a sign that the Church is still present and active despite needing to halt many ministerial activities during the pandemic.
“The Church not only hasn’t gone away, they do run into harm’s way to serve the faithful,” Sullivan said.
Father Tom Macdonald, vice-rector of St. John’s Seminary in Boston, told Catholic News Agency that being a COVID-19 chaplain is “like living as a firefighter in a firehouse. We’re here, we get calls, we rush out, we come back.”
Father Macdonald said that each time he’s been called to anoint a COVID-19 patient, hospital staff has assisted him in donning and removing his personal protective equipment.
He said that the priest prays most of the prayers for the Sacrament at the threshold of the patient’s room. When it is time to anoint the patient, he enters and applies the Oil of the Sick with a cotton swab on the patient’s foot. It is normally applied to the forehead and palms.
The program has impacted not only the patients themselves, as WGBH explained:
The response from family members, patients and staff members has been extremely positive, according to Sullivan. “Staff members and administrators in the hospitals have been really pleased about the way this has worked out,” she said. “They’re thrilled for their patients, who they know feel better to the extent that they are aware of things.” On one of the first days of the program in early April, a priest went to do the sacrament for the first time, and Sullivan says a nurse asked him to bless the staff when he came out of the room, following his anointing of the patient. “He thought she just meant the few team members that were right there,” Sullivan said, “and when he came out, 25 staff members had assembled for the blessing.”