A Vatican tribunal has suggested the introduction of “extraordinary hospital chaplains” during the outbreak of the coronavirus. According to the tribunal, such chaplains would, in agreement with health authorities and obeying health norms, volunteer spiritual assistance to the sick and dying.
While the proposal is gaining traction among some well-intentioned priests, many are left questioning how it would work. Will hospitals admit these new chaplains into their packed-out wards? Will they have the time and resources to train priests in cross-infection protocol and provide them with suits and masks which are in short supply, have to be personally tailored, and would otherwise be used by hospital staff?
The answer will differ immensely from one country to another. So what about Britain?
After speaking to clergy with long experience of the NHS – all of whom asked not to be named – it appears that a team of “extraordinary hospital chaplains” will probably not be feasible.
Most UK hospitals, if not all, are currently banning outside visitors, including priests. Only hospital staff, which includes those already working as hospital chaplains, can have access to patients.
Moreover, the cross-infection protocols surrounding patients with Covid-19 are extremely strict. According to a source, in one hospital whose standards are probably typical, to access a patient with Covid-19 the priest must be fully clothed in personal protective equipment (PPE), including a specialised filter mask. Being fitted for this equipment alone takes about 30 minutes.
In general, anything the priest brings into the room with Covid-19 patients, if it is not part of the protective equipment, has to be prepared outside, put on a tray, and left in the room. Neither the pyx which contains the Blessed Sacrament nor the oil for administering Anointing of the Sick can be brought; instead, the host and cotton wool soaked in oil must be taken in containers that can be left in the room. The same applies to prayer books: the hospital chaplain must either commit the words to memory or write them on a piece of paper that he leaves behind.
As staff employees, hospital chaplains will have training in these procedures. Beyond them, it is uncertain, if not unlikely, that hospitals would train and admit additional priests. As one priest and part-time doctor put it: “Although the intention of people making sacrifices to attend to the spiritual needs of those infected is laudable, the practical realities of infection control would not allow such individuals access to Covid patients.”
However, hospital chaplains are expected to be thinly spread over the coming weeks and months. As the virus ramps up, some hospital chaplains are already being deployed in purely medical tasks – such as supporting morticians in non-specialist roles.
The best way for non-medical priests to assist hospital chaplains is probably in means only indirectly related to Covid-19. For example, if a hospital chaplain also works part-time at a parish, other priests could cover his parish duties. Or, so long as a priest is young and healthy enough to be exposed to those working in hospitals, he could also minister to hospital staff who are under great stress. This is often the role of hospital chaplains, one that especially now should not be neglected.
There has also been talk of setting up “temporary hospitals” in hotels, industrial buildings, even cruise ships. While the NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015 state that those accessing NHS services have always had the opportunity to receive care from an NHS chaplain, there would of course be no currently-employed chaplains linked to these temporary facilities; the NHS might not feel obliged to provide chaplains in such unusual circumstances.
If equipment and training could be spared and assuming other hospital chaplains would be occupied, there could be a window of opportunity – especially for priests who have some medical background – to adopt the role of “extraordinary hospital chaplains” in these non-permanent facilities. However, ordinary measures regarding provision of chaplains may go out the window.
While these issues are far from cheery, Church leaders across the world have urged us to remember the extent of God’s mercy. There are contexts even outside of Covid-19 in which people die without receiving viaticum and Anointing of the Sick. While a priest should make every effort to arrive before the person’s passing, the grace and mercy of God can be imparted in ways other than the sacraments, particularly when the sacraments are desired by the individual.
The Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, for example, has reminded the faithful that, when “in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution”, one who makes an act of perfect contrition and firmly resolves to attend sacramental confession as soon as possible obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones.
Whether or not there will be sufficient hospital chaplains to minister to those afflicted with Covid-19 remains uncertain. But that does not mean the faithful must spend their last days far from God.