“Visiting someone dying from the effects of Covid-19,” says Fr Patrick Hyde, “was like nothing I had ever experienced before.” Fr Hyde, a self-styled “nerdy-Latinist-former-rugby-playing-Dominican-priest” in Bloomington, Indiana, has experience of anointing the sick, and this wasn’t the first time he had worn personal protective equipment. What was new, Fr Hyde tells the Herald, was the isolation.
“The patient had not had direct contact with anyone other than the medical caregivers for a few weeks. So, to be able to be the one to see him and to be able to bring him the peace that only comes from Christ and His Sacraments into that space, was a joy and experience I may never have again.” On Twitter, Fr Hyde recounted the sheer joy in the voice of a patient he visited: “Father, I am so glad you are here. Now I can die in peace.”
“In the end,” Fr Hyde says, “priesthood is about leading people to God, and bringing Jesus to a soul in its last hours on earth is always powerful; but this time, even more so.”
On Chicago’s South Side, the archdiocese has picked a team of young, medically fit priests and tasked them with going into the community to administer the Sacrament of the Sick. One, Fr Matthew O’Donnell, told the Catholic News Agency: “I think all of us are knowledgeable of the risks, but the importance of the sacrament outweighs that.”
The team are trained to follow social distancing guidelines and the practices of the hospitals or nursing homes they visit. They wear protective equipment and do not dip the same finger twice in the holy oils. They never gather as a group but communicate digitally. Not all hospitals allow them in, so counselling families online or by phone has become a large part of their apostolic work.
Similarly, the Archdiocese of Boston has set up groups of priests in designated houses near hospitals to administer the sacrament to Covid-19 patients. Fr Tom Macdonald is part of this group and spoke with CNA: “It’s sort of like – I would imagine – living as a firefighter in a firehouse.” He said the priests are assisted by hospital staff in and out of their protective equipment and they have been trained to conduct the service in the doorway. When they anoint with the holy oils it is with a cotton swab on the patient’s foot. “We teach men at St John’s [seminary] that priests run into the burning building, not away from it.”
In New York City’s upper east side, the tall featureless buildings of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center embrace the Church of St Catherine of Siena – part of a parish run by the Dominican Friars who have for decades served as chaplains to hospitals and nursing homes in the area. These days they cannot easily do so. The younger friars of the group continue administering to the sick, but this has raised concern for the safety of the elderly brothers. Therefore, the most vulnerable in the priory have been sent away.
However, one of the remaining Dominican brothers took it a step further. Fr Hugh Vincent Dyer moved from the priory to live at the nursing home he served, to be more present to the residents and to safeguard his brothers. At the home he celebrates Mass with his congregation participating from their rooms via closed circuit TV. Besides the Mass he also says the rosary, stations of the cross, and even recites poetry. He visits the residents individually, keeping to social distancing, and stays in touch with their families.
Today’s pandemic presents new challenges for the clergy. Yet there is also an unprecedented need for spiritual comfort; so many who suffer alone – or alone except for the company of Christ on the Cross calling out: My God, why have you forsaken me? These priests and brothers answer this call, in spite of the dangers and difficulties, bringing souls the physical and spiritual consolations of the Faith. As Fr Hyde wrote on Twitter: “This is the power of the Sacrament and why I’m a priest.”
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