“When people need us, we satisfy their need for God,” said Fr Cesare Pluchinotta, a chaplain in Rome’s primary hospital for Covid-19 patients. The difference in Pluchinotta’s ministry is he must try to fulfil these spiritual needs through glass.
Fr Pluchinotta is one of two priest chaplains at Spallanzani Hospital, home to Rome’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Stationed there just six months, he is now grappling with the reality of bringing the sacraments to patients under isolation, in what has become the region’s “Covid Hospital 1.”
As Rome reacts to the growing number of coronavirus cases in Italy’s Lazio region, hospitals are being specially designated and set up specifically to treat Covid-19 infections. This is one of several measures to isolate the virus and keep other patients safe which Italy’s hardest-hit northern regions were unable to take before the grave outbreak of the coronavirus.
As of March 18, there were 194 coronavirus patients at Spallanzani Hospital. Of these patients, 19 are receiving respiratory support. Lazio has 418 coronavirus patients hospitalized overall, and 32 have died from the pandemic.
“There is a danger not only for us but for the rest of the hospital and personnel, so we have to take care of our health, not only for us but for all the other people we come into contact with,” Pluchinotta told CNA by phone.
He said his habit before the coronavirus outbreak was to go from room to room, trying to see every patient every day. But because of increased security measures, “we cannot enter the rooms like we usually do,” he said.
“In this moment, the work is above all this: to try to get people to pray.”
“We are also trying to find other ways to be close to the sick and to people in general,” he said.
Under current circumstances, Pluchinotta and his fellow chaplain must wait for a request from a patient before visiting.
When they receive a request for confession, anointing of the sick, or the Eucharist, they dress in protective gear and masks. For communion, they are only allowed to enter the anterooms of the isolation chambers. They bring the Eucharist and leave it in the anteroom before exiting. They then wait on the outside for the patient to enter the anteroom, where the chaplains may pray and speak with them through a glass partition.
Pluchinotta said the number of requests depends on the day.
Like any hospital chaplain, he said his work does not have the same consistency or rhythm as ministering in a parish.
“In pastoral work in a hospital, maybe one week you have so much work you don’t even have time to sleep, because so many people want to go to confession, want to speak, want comfort; and then maybe another week you find that no one wants a chaplain,” he said.
“People who enter the hospital this week exit the next,” he explained. “It is ministry in an environment where the people change all the time.”
A more consistent form of ministry in the hospital, he said, is his contact with doctors and nurses. He offers Mass in the chapel and has a prayer group for nurses. There were plans for Lenten prayer groups and to offer a catechism course for staff at the hospital, but all that has changed.
“Right now, that it is not permitted to meet, [the nurses’ prayer group is] communicating only through Whatsapp or over the internet,” he said.
“We send prayers, encouraging messages. We are trying to bring them hope, strength, courage during these days.”
Pluchinotta said doctors have asked the priests for prayers and said they are trusting in them. “We have multiplied the prayers during these days. Prayer gives us a lot of strength.”
“Our [active] ministry has been replaced with much prayer, with intercession, which we priests believe in strongly,” Pluchinotta stressed. “We believe God will help us a lot through prayer and drawing close to those cases… in the ways safety protocols will allow.”
“We will continue to give the sacraments to the people who want them, who ask for them.”
He said in his four and a half years as a hospital chaplain, first at a hospital for cancer patients, whenever he brought the sacraments to those who were ill, suffering, or in the last stages of life, he could visibly see the peace they brought.
Pluchinotta added that in a parish, priests see great life conversions much less frequently, maybe once per year, but in a hospital, a priest might see one or more per week.
“People have in front of them the understanding that they are at the end” and some return to the sacraments after many years away, he said.
“A beautiful thing about working in a hospital is frequently seeing these conversions with your own eyes.”
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