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COVID-19: A pastor’s perspective: You Are All on the Front Lines

Administering the anointing of the sick with coronavirus precautions in mind

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On the feast of St. Joseph, our bishop had a conference call with priests. He wanted to reassure us all in this challenging time and let us know that he is accompanying us. He led us in a beautiful meditation on St. Joseph and told us all that we have to be like St. Joseph by overcoming fear and surrendering ourselves to God. He reminded us of the pastoral directives in place and said something that really hit me: “You are all on the front lines.”

All day I thought about his words. What he was saying was that in our limited interactions with our people we are in the war zone, so to speak. At this time, for healthcare chaplains and for any priest called to anoint a dying person, there are extra precautions to behold.

In the two parishes that I serve with my brother parochial vicars, we have a local hospital and four nursing homes. We are fortunate to have two dedicated chaplains who service these institutions. But on their day off, my brothers and I cover the sick calls. In addition to these institutions, we also have over 15,000 parishioners between the two parishes. As you might imagine, the likelihood of having to celebrate the anointing of the sick is very real.

My brothers and I have discussed this possibility along with the new protocols in place. We also purchased goggles for us to wear. Masks are impossible to find. We also have gloves and cotton to use to apply the oil. We were instructed that whenever we get the call to anoint someone we are to keep a safe distance and to not linger in the room.

Well, it happened. One of my parochial vicars came to me and said, “We have a parishioner who is dying, and they want you to anoint him.” He gave me the name and address. We were scheduled to livestream holy Mass in less than a half-hour because of technical difficulties earlier in the morning. I was so much looking forward to being at Mass. We had to keep to the schedule as advertised. But this person was dying and in need of God’s grace.

I asked my parochial vicars to delay the start, and I immediately went to the home. Before I entered the house, I put on gloves, affixed the goggles to my face and had the cotton along with the oil of the sick. When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by a family member who must have thought I was from another planet given how I looked. She said, “Father, don’t worry, the family uses the other door.” I explained that we were instructed to use these precautions. Lo and behold, there were six family members present, all in a small space.

What I had done thousands of times — that is, bring comfort to the dying and support to families — was now so scary and somewhat compromised. I could not stay. I could not comfort with a handshake or embrace. It was so different. The family said that their loved one did not have the virus. But one of them could have it. They were grateful.

Fortunately, I made it to holy Mass and was able to pray for this dying person and his family, as well as all priests, emergency service personnel, healthcare professionals and grocery store clerks who are on the front lines.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 15 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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