Soldiers of the Sacraments: Younger Catholic Priests Bring Christ to Sick, Dying

In a defining mission for the priesthood, younger priests backed by their bishops are giving comfort to those in need amid the pandemic.

A priest (c) walks through the Intensive Care Unit and prepares to give a blessing and Holy Communion to patients for Easter on April 12 in Sant’Orsola Hospital in Bologna, Italy. Worldwide, including in the U.S., priests are suiting up in protective gear to anoint the sick amid the pandemic.
A priest (c) walks through the Intensive Care Unit and prepares to give a blessing and Holy Communion to patients for Easter on April 12 in Sant’Orsola Hospital in Bologna, Italy. Worldwide, including in the U.S., priests are suiting up in protective gear to anoint the sick amid the pandemic. (photo: Max Cavallari/Getty Images)

In the bewildered eyes of the dying man, the priest saw the terror of abandonment. What should have been a gentle parting of this life in his own room with his loved ones at his side had turned into a surreal landscape: His loved ones stood far off, alongside the hospice team and the priest, all enshrouded in PPE (personal protective equipment).

“He was going to die with COVID, but not because of it,” Father Daniel O’Mullane told the Register. Another terminal illness was claiming the man’s life. The rain poured outside, and, inside the home, the sorrowful eyes pierced the heart of the New Jersey Catholic priest who stood there all gowned, wearing protective goggles and gloves. The dying man needed a last touch of humanity before he left this world; instead, he seemed surrounded by masked aliens visiting from another planet. So the priest took a personal calculated risk.

He slipped off the gloves and began performing the last rites. He spoke slowly and clearly; however, the wordless ritual of the laying on of hands spoke loudest of all.

“Even in that short ritual, there is something perhaps more profound about the silence,” he said, for not only the person being anointed but all the people in the room. “Of course, the words with the anointing on the forehead and the hands are very powerful … but the silence really focuses everybody on the action.” The priest anointed the man’s head with oil, tracing the Sign of the Cross with his thumb. He had a momentary feeling of alarm when the nurse did not bring forth the sterilizing alcohol wash to bathe his hands at the conclusion of the rites. He instead grabbed a bottle of hand sanitizer, talked with the dying man’s family members, and then left the home to finish sanitizing and removing his protective gear.

Once back in his car, he just sat there to breathe and think.

“It is the one anointing that I’m going to remember most,” he said. It was the kind of moment to make him think about Christ and the lepers, the untouchables of that time, and the role of the priest in ministering to COVID patients, the untouchables of today — the tension of Christ’s ministry and society’s need for social distance felt keenly in both situations.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has brought the world to a standstill. But around the world the Catholic Church is seeing cadres of younger, healthy priests train, suit up in PPE, and run to provide the consolation and grace of the anointing of the sick and last rites to the dying in homes, hospitals and nursing home facilities.

The responsibility for last rites in the COVID-19 pandemic falls squarely on the younger generation of priests who are not living with older priests who are at high risk for the ravages of the disease. Priests like Father O’Mullane, from the Diocese of Paterson, for instance, are isolated from contact with older priests. The average age of a Catholic priest in the U.S. is 70 years old.

They all have to take precautions. Father O’Mullane noted that he makes a personal risk assessment: If he does an anointing with oil where his hands are exposed, he bathes them in an alcohol wash to disinfect the skin of any contact with the coronavirus. Other priests adopt more protective measures, but their mission is the same — to let people know Christ and the Church is with them.


Archdiocesan Strike Teams

The COVID-19 pandemic has stunned the global Church, which has not had to deal with a global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu, which first hit the United States in Kansas. “How to Administer Sacraments in Times of Pandemic” has not been considered a required course in seminary up to now.

But new training protocols for priests are being quickly developed.

The Thomistic Institute, based out of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., has spearheaded new protocols for administering the sacraments safely and effectively that were developed with an interdisciplinary approach combining experts in medicine, science, pastoral care and Catholic theology. The Thomistic Institute has published guidelines on confession and restarting public Mass, with new guidelines on anointing of the sick to be published shortly.

“Our group is animated by a very strong desire to find a way to bring the sacraments to people,” Dominican Father Dominic Legge, director of the Thomistic Institute, told the Register.

He explained that anointing of the sick presents a challenge, given the current needs for social distancing.

“You cannot confer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick from 6 feet away. It requires an actual anointing with oil,” he said. However, the rubrics of the ritual do permit the priest to use an instrument, such as cotton swabs or Q-tips dipped in holy oil, for the anointing. The goal is to limit the points of contact that could be the entry way for contagion to the priest or others.

Father Legge said the Thomistic Institute will have more guidances forthcoming, such as the administration of baptism and Holy Communion to the sick. The feedback so far from bishops, priests and the lay faithful has been positive.

“It has been very consoling to me to hear,” he said. The spiritual fight against COVID-19 has the morale of priests running high in the Archdiocese of Sydney, according to Auxiliary Bishop Richard Umbers. The Church has been active in a variety of ways amid the crisis, and a million Australians tuned in live to watch the Good Friday and Easter liturgies at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. When it comes to last rites, Bishop Umbers told the Register that the archdiocese is blessed with a lot of younger priests, and they are ready and willing to step up to bring Holy Communion and anointing of the sick to Catholics who are ill and dying in the hospitals and care facilities, particularly of COVID-19.

Bishop Umbers and priests from each archdiocesan deanery have undergone training at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. The training process is rigorous, and the hospital demands that each priest have not only the proper training, but also all the vaccinations needed for hospital work. The bishop’s main job at this stage is overseeing the setup of the teams, but once everything is in place (including all his shots), he plans on getting into the rotation.

Bishop Umbers said the priests are being trained to go out in pairs. Because the virus can do such damage in a hospital, everything has to be disposable.

“Anything you take in with you, you must leave behind,” he said.

Taking viaticum to a COVID-19 patient is particularly tricky. The challenge is to do this with “love and reverence,” he said, but they have worked out a way to bring the Host from the pyx outside the isolation room into the hands of the priest wrapped in PPE, who then brings Jesus directly to the patient.

“You’ve got to be particularly careful with Our Lord,” he said.

But Bishop Umbers said “morale is higher” now among the archdiocesan priests because some of them are able to do this. And they keep their communication strong between the bishops and priests. They pray the Liturgy of the Hours over Zoom, and the bishops are planning to conduct synodal discussions over the teleconferencing program.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into the communication side of things,” he said. “People are keeping busy.”


Archdiocesan Strike Teams

In the U.S., archdioceses have also taken the lead by creating what might be called strike teams of priests to be deployed to administer the sacraments to sick or dying COVID-19 patients.

The Archdioceses of Chicago and Boston, for example, working with hospitals, have developed plans and trained priests to provide this critical spiritual care.

The Archdiocese of Chicago assembled teams of 24 priests, spread throughout the archdiocesan territory, to be trained by local hospitals to administer the sacraments of the sick throughout the COVID-19 public-health crisis.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago requested priest-volunteers under the age of 60 and without chronic illness to step forward. Father Matthew O’Donnell, pastor of St. Columbanus Church on Chicago’s South Side, heeded the call.

He told the Register that the presence of the priest has been a comfort to not just the sick and dying, but also their families.

The parish priest said he got a call that a COVID-19 patient in the hospital was at death’s door. But when he arrived, the patient was awake, sitting up and alert. They talked and prayed together. The priest gave the sacrament. A week later, the patient suddenly declined and passed away.

“I think it was a blessing for that family,” he said, following up with them after the patient’s passing. “It is Christ who works through that sacrament.”

Probably the one thought that nags at him is that “there are so many people right now that aren’t able to have anyone with them as they’re dying.”

“This is one thing I can do,” he said.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Archdiocese of Boston has trained 30 priests to do specialized ministry to COVID-19 patients, and more than a dozen priests volunteered to do support work.

The archdiocese held a training session for 80 priests about the new procedures. Volunteers were sorted into whether they would work on a hospital team or serve as backup or in a support role by providing an empty rectory for the COVID-19 priest-teams to live in, as well as providing them food and running errands to allow them to carry out the special ministry. 

The strict procedures developed by the archdiocese are meant to reassure medical teams that these priests will not cross-contaminate staff or patients.


‘Christ Can’t Be Locked Out’

Seminary students are taught that the priest acts in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.”

For Father Thomas Macdonald, vice rector of the Boston Archdiocese’s St. John’s Seminary, the lesson isn’t classroom theory. Clad in PPE, standing outside the hospital door of a COVID-19 patient’s room, he speaks the words of anointing ritual through the speaker, but it is Christ’s words that carry into the room. He then walks into the room, administers the holy oils with a cotton swab and returns — but it is Christ who reaches through the locked door and who remains.

“Christ can’t be locked out in this time of trial,” he told the Register. It is a lesson he wants St. John’s future priests to remember.

The priest’s ministry, he said, shows not just patients and their families, but also medical personnel, how Christ, “the Divine Physician,” is in their midst. The priest mentioned that one of his COVID-19 teammates after an anointing ended up leading about 25 people in prayer in a great big circle.

Within the walls of the hospitals and nursing homes, there is a recognition of “a deeper health, and Christ is essential for that.”

“They realize that ministry to the body is not enough,” he said.

Many expectations he had as a priest have been challenged, but above all, the ability to administer the sacraments during COVID-19’s outbreak has called him “deeper into Christ’s high priesthood.”

“We’re going to do it as long as we’re healthy, and there is a need,” he said.

“It’s just what priests do.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.