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COVID-19 Priest Team administers Sacrament of the Sick

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It's April 23, 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts. Father David Barnes is outside the room of a COVID-19 patient at Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain being helped by a nurse to don personal protective equipment (PPE). He is part of the Archdiocese of Boston's newly formed COVID-19 Priest Team. In the early days of the pandemic, priests had not been considered essential personnel and, therefore, not allowed into patients' rooms to administer the Sacrament of the Sick. Thanks to the COVID-19 Priest Team, that was no longer the case.

After Father Barnes had anointed the patient, the nurse was waiting for him with a request. Would he say a prayer and give a blessing to some of the staff? Of course, he said he would be happy to. The nurse made the announcement, and, as they walked through the unit, staff members joined them.

"We got to the end of the hall," Father Barnes said. "I closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, there were about 25 hospital staff members there. It was very touching. You could see they were exhausted, and fearful. We prayed for them and their families."

Pope Francis reminded us in his General Audience of February 26, 2014, that God is present in the Sacrament of the Sick, in the promise he makes to be with us forever.

"The greatest comfort comes from the fact that it is the Lord Jesus himself who makes himself present in the sacrament, who takes us by the hand, who caresses us as he did with the sick, and who reminds us that we already belong to him and that nothing -- not even evil and death -- can ever separate us from him," The Holy Father said.

Earlier this year, with COVID-19 descending upon us, patients were being deprived of the Sacrament of the Sick. While the concern for the safety of everyone entering a hospital was understandable, the situation couldn't be allowed to continue.

"For seriously ill and dying Catholics, the priest is not just a welcome visitor," said MC Sullivan, chief health care ethicist for the Archdiocese of Boston. "He is a member of the care team whose responsibility for administering the Sacrament of the Sick is as important as the administration of medication, if not more so."

As a chaplain at Lawrence General Hospital, I had the opportunity to witness how the priests in the Archdiocese of Boston stepped forward to remedy the situation. What's more, they did so under the auspices of a cross-cabinet team that operated swiftly, cooperatively, and creatively to respond to each of the significant challenges posed by the pandemic.

Anticipating and responding

Sullivan, a member of the Cardinal's Cabinet, was part of the Pandemic Response Team the archdiocese had assembled in March. Headed by Chancellor John Straub and Vicar General Bishop Peter J. Uglietto, the team included bishops and department heads. Its purpose was to anticipate and respond to how COVID-19 was affecting the work of the archdiocese. In response to the need to get priests into the hospitals, Sullivan, along with fellow cabinet member Father Robert M. Blaney, secretary for ministerial personnel and director of clergy personnel; Deacon Jim Greer, director of chaplaincy programs; and Father Eric Cadin, director of the Office of Vocations and the Office of University Ministry, created the COVID-19 Priest Team, a group of priests assigned exclusively to administer the Sacrament of the Sick to COVID-19 patients.

The first step was to convince hospital leadership in the archdiocesan territory that the priest's presence in patients' rooms was as essential as that of medical personnel. Sullivan, who as chief health care ethicist knew hospital leadership, presented her case: the critical nature of the Sacrament of the Sick for patients, the comfort to families, and the sense of solidarity hospital staff would feel with the clergy's presence. There are 45 hospitals within the territory of the archdiocese. Almost all of them agreed to let our priests in to administer the sacrament.

With the hospitals on board, it was time to work out the details, and quickly.

"We came up with the idea of recruiting a group of priests who would be dedicated to this purpose," Father Blaney said. "The nuance was that they would have to be sequestered because they would be exposed to the virus."

Eighty-three priests, including archdiocesan priests, Franciscans of the Primitive Observance, and Jesuits, answered Cardinal Seán's call to serve. Father Blaney, pleased with the tremendous response, said, "The men's attitude was, 'Okay, this is what the Church needs me to do. It's a no-brainer.'"

Ultimately, age and health issues limited the number of priests to 23, who could serve in this capacity. Dedicated housing was set up. Volunteers, including priests who had responded to the request but didn't qualify and staff from the archdiocese's Pastoral Center, handled the day-to-day tasks of grocery shopping and running other errands.

Colleen Donohoe, associate superintendent of Catholic identity and respect life educator of the Catholic Schools Office, coordinated the volunteers.

Once the team was assembled, they had to be trained to be compliant with the infectious disease precautions and PPE requirements each facility would demand. They were instructed in how to don and doff the PPE, to be in and out of the room in seconds, and to anoint the foot rather than the head. The point was to minimize the infection risk, both from the patient to the priest and from the priest to the patient.

Deacon Greer communicated with the hospitals and the chaplains, keeping everyone up to date on what was going on. "As you can imagine, this was a very traumatic event for our hospitals and the people ministering on the front lines of this pandemic," he said. "Our priests came in, and I think they brought a very calming influence to the facilities."

Father Cadin was the team member responsible for putting in place the administrative structure and technology required to support the team. The system had to keep track of the requests for a priest's presence as well as practical needs, such as food and PPE. "We set up the system to be flexible, adaptable, and as lean as possible," Father Cadin said. A toll-free number, staffed by archdiocesan deacons and often their wives, was set up for hospital staff members to call around the clock.

Meanwhile, back at the parishes, priests were being called to individual homes, nursing homes, and hospices. If patients were COVID-19 positive, the parish priest was unable to attend. So in mid-May, the initiative was expanded to support parish and community needs.

Of course, non-COVID-19 related parish work still needed to be done. The parish priests were reaching out to families via phone calls, FaceTime, emails, and text messages and managing the strange, new world of virtual Masses. They did an extraordinary job, and continue to do so, of staying connected at a distance, providing pastoral care under unprecedented circumstances.

The COVID-19 Priest Team administered more than 1,100 anointings at hospitals, Long-term care facilities, and private homes. None of the priests on the team were infected with COVID-19. That is a tribute to the protocols, careful planning, and efficient operation the cross-cabinet team executed.

Today, with the proper protocols in place, the regular priest chaplains and parish priests are able to again administer the Sacrament of the Sick.

"I think if you look at Scripture, you'll see that Jesus spent the most of his time ministering to the sick," said Deacon Greer. "And, that's exactly what we were doing here. He whispered into the hearts of those priests, into the hearts of those volunteers and said, 'Follow me.' And, they did."

Cardinal Seán said of the COVID-19 Priest Team: "This pastoral outreach was a response to an unmet need, continuing a history of selfless service on the part of priests of the Archdiocese of Boston. By bringing the Sacrament of the Sick to those in critical situations, the priests put into action Jesus' call to be his witnesses to the people of God at all times and in all circumstances. We are blessed by their sacrifice."


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