US Dioceses Still Visit the Sick and Bury the Dead — Despite Coronavirus Threat

In three West Coast dioceses that are dealing with substantial outbreaks of the pandemic, policies have been instituted to address a situation with little precedent.

Bishop Ignacy Dec of Swidnica, Poland, anoints the sick of his diocese at a service last month.
Bishop Ignacy Dec of Swidnica, Poland, anoints the sick of his diocese at a service last month. (photo: Father Miroslaw Benedyk/EWTN Polska)

SEATTLE — There are currently more than 9,400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 150 deaths from the disease reported in the U.S. — and those involved in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church in U.S. dioceses see the need for prayers and the sacraments now more than ever, as a part of what the Church can offer during these troubling times.

Although the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has interrupted individual lives and sundered the social fabric of the country, the Catholic Church must still take into account some elements of everyday life, including sickness and death — which, no matter how desperate times are, happen regardless and still require a Catholic response.

Thus, while public gatherings, including the public celebration of the Mass, have been canceled around the country, Church leaders know that prayers for the dead must continue, either during funeral Masses or at graveside committal services.

Likewise, even as government and health officials are strongly encouraging “social distancing” among individuals, priests must still attend on a personal level to the sick and dying by administering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.


Archdiocese of Seattle

Serving the Church in what many consider to be the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus threat, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg of the Archdiocese of Seattle is the point man for Archbishop Paul Etienne’s archdiocesan rapid-response team. The archdiocese, like the rest of the Seattle, was early to respond to the crisis because it had to.

Western Washington state proved to be the U.S. entry point for the virus when the first cases in the country were identified in the Seattle area, including the first coronavirus death in the United States — an elderly patient at a nursing home facility in Seattle on Feb. 29. The state is currently reporting more than 1,000 cases, with about half of these in and around Seattle in King County.

Since Seattle is such a hot zone for the virus, Bishop Mueggenborg told the Register that archdiocesan priests are attending to the sick and dying on a case-to-case basis.

“Oftentimes, people may be in danger of death or seriously ill for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the coronavirus,” he said. “In those cases we continue to anoint and minister as usual. In situations where persons may have the coronavirus, most often, those persons are in some type of medical-care facility, and the facility provides the protective garments and facemasks so priests can enter the room and be with the person to anoint them.”

There is little or nothing that official Church law has to say about living in a time of pandemic; however, in the section of Canon Law on Anointing of the Sick, Canon 1000.2 notes, “The minister is to perform the anointings with his own hand, unless a grave reason warrants the use of an instrument.” According to Bishop Mueggenborg, the threat of the coronavirus represents just such a grave reason.

For that reason, he told the Register, “we ask that as part of the protection for the priest administering the sacrament, he wear protective gloves, which is permitted by canon law when doing the actual anointing” because of the allowance for the use of an “instrument.”

According to Bishop Mueggenborg, the Archdiocese of Seattle also has provided a supply of “emergency anointing kits” for priests “who may be called upon to anoint those who are in danger of death at home and may be suffering from the coronavirus. Those kits include all the protective garments that a priest would need to enter someone’s home.”

The most likely priests to use these kits, the bishop added, are a team of 20 Seattle clergy who have volunteered to be on 24-hour call for anointing any of the 690,000 Catholics among the 3.5 million people who live in the archdiocese. These priests, Bishop Mueggenborg said, “have volunteered for this work, and none of them have come from the vulnerable population — none of them is over 60 or have underlying health conditions — and they have been trained on how to use the emergency anointing kits. They are on call in different regions around the archdiocese to care for homebound parishioners who need to be anointed.”


Archdiocese of Portland

About 175 miles south, across the Oregon-Washington state line, the Archdiocese of Portland is also continuing to provide sacraments to the sick and dying. Oregon currently has 75 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and three deaths.

According to Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the archdiocese, while Archbishop Alexander Sample has canceled all public celebrations of the Mass in the archdiocese, special consideration has been given to funeral Masses.

“Our policy on funerals is that they can carry on,” he said. “However, we say that we’re going to stick with the state law to keep the gatherings to less than 25 people — and we’re recommending that 10 people should be the maximum in attendance.”

But like all other Masses in the archdiocese — and practically across the country — funeral Masses in Portland are to be private.

“We’re asking families not to publicize funeral Masses,” Msgr. O’Connor said. “If you put it into the paper that a funeral Mass is at 10am Friday morning, people might turn up. So then you face the crowd-control issue: Who do you let in, and who do you turn away?”

“That’s what we’re telling our priests,” he added. “Otherwise, the funeral Mass goes ahead just as a normal funeral Mass, although one with a lower attendance, and hopefully the priest can attract a cantor and reader to assist.”

While all Masses are precious and infinitely valuable, Msgr. O’Connor said, the Mass for the dead carries with it a special emphasis on charity.

“Basically, it’s important to our life as Catholics that we pray for the dead, and to offer that Mass for someone who has died is very important,” he said. “Whether people can attend it or not, every Catholic deserves to have a funeral Mass, which is not talking about people turning up but about the fact that the grace of the funeral Mass is being offered for that person’s soul.”


Archdiocese of Los Angeles

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the largest diocese in the country, serving about 5 million Catholics — Archbishop José Gomez has asked the archdiocese’s vice chancellor, Father Brian Nunes, to lead a team of advisers in adapting the sacramental life of the Church to the times.

California currently reports 598 coronavirus cases and 13 deaths; of those, 190 cases in Los Angeles County, two cases in Santa Barbara County, and one case in Ventura County, the three counties under the archdiocese’s jurisdiction.

Under Father Nunes’ guidance, the archdiocese issued to its priests a document entitled “Liturgical Accommodations During the Suspension of the Public Celebration of Mass Due to COVID-19 Health Threat” to help them in their liturgical response to the coronavirus crisis.

On the section covering funerals, provided to the Register by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the document notes, “Funerals may take place only in the form of ‘The Rite of Committal With Final Commendation’ (also known as the ‘grave service’). If desired by the family, a memorial Mass can be scheduled appropriately at a later date.” 

In the section covering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, also provided to the Register, the document states that priests are to attend to those in need of the sacrament; however, if “a priest is sick or considered to be a high-risk individual (e.g., elderly, suffers from respiratory conditions, immunocompromised, etc.), he should request assistance from another priest.” In addition, priests “attending to the needs of the sick are to observe all proper sanitary protocols and, if necessary, check-in with proper medical personnel before entering the room of the patient.”

The document also noted that sick calls and distribution of Holy Communion for the homebound “are reserved to priests only” and that priests are to “clean and refresh their oil stocks before visiting the sick.” 

“All of these accommodations are designed to safeguard public health,” Father Nunes told the Register.

For instance, when administering the anointing of the sick, he explained, “after having anointed a person on the head and hands, if that person happens to be contagious, we don’t want to transmit that to another person but to be very mindful of having used clean and fresh oil so not to make the sacrament itself a means of transmitting the disease.”


A Real Presence

In providing the sacraments to the sick and dying and praying for the dead, Father Nunes said, the Church and her priests can provide not only comfort but also the presence of Christ himself to those most in need.

“In these particular sacraments and ministries, we’re offering the healing and consolation of Jesus himself,” he said. “This is when people are hurting and suffering the most. We as priests are standing in persona Christi [in the person of Christ] to serve the people and come to them.”

In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Mueggenborg sees an opportunity for priests to recommit themselves to their vocation.

“Everything the priest does is about bringing people into communion with Christ,” he said. “So this is simply an opportunity and occasion for all of us to live out our priesthood in this environment. … It’s calling us to a real clarification and purification of our identity and our ministry as priests.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

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