The Bishops of England and Wales are emphasising the need for safety precautions in hospital chaplaincy.
Bishop Paul Mason of the Bishopric of the Forces, the lead bishop for health issues, said in the April 5 guidance that “it is becoming increasingly clear that giving access to chaplains is difficult due to the scarcity of PPE (personal protective equipment).”
This meant there was a higher risk of a hospital chaplain infecting other chaplains as well as “becoming another link in the chain of infection,” he said.
“Our advice, therefore, is for all Catholic chaplaincy coordinators to ensure that they are in constant liaison with hospital … authorities so that these bodies are aware of the availability of priests,” he said.
“They should ensure that contact details of chaplains and priests are available for telephone support of those who need it,” he said.
Priests and chaplains, he continued, must follow the instructions of the hospitals in which they serve.
Bishop Mason said while “this runs counter to our instinct to provide personal end-of-life sacramental and pastoral care, in the current circumstances, minimizing the spread of the virus must be the priority of all.”
Under the bishops’ previously-issued health advice, chaplains can give last rites if the oil is “applied using a cotton bud, which can be burned afterwards” and the priest “suspends his hands over the sick person for laying on of hands.”
Bishops have stressed the importance of the last rites, while noting that safety precautions must be taken. Writing in this week’s Catholic Herald, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said that he was “deeply concerned about our pastoral care of the dying and how to administer to them the Last Rites and the Apostolic Pardon. Please pray that no Catholic dies without the help of Mother Church.”
The bishop continued: “Receiving these last rites is a fundamental right which no Catholic should be denied, if it is at all possible to administer them. Through them the dying person receives consolation, peace, and strength from God, forgiveness of sins, union with Christ crucified, and strength for the physical and spiritual battle of the final journey.”
Bishop Egan praised the “fine example” of a local hospital, Queen Alexandra, which “recognises the dignity of each individual patient and allows the priest and a family member to have access to their loved one in their last agony, providing the equipment needed for them to be present safely. I pray their fine example is followed by other hospitals and nursing homes throughout the country.”
Access to the other sacraments has already been halted. Public Masses and most confessions are suspended and baptisms, confirmations and weddings have also been deferred until after the pandemic.
Churches are closed even to private prayer as part of the three-week-old national lockdown.