The world has been grateful to health care professionals, grocery store workers and others providing “essential services” during this time of global pandemic. And for Catholics, no service is more essential than the sacramental ministry of priests. Despite the suspension of public liturgies, priests have continued to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and have striven to minister to the faithful in various ways.
Where possible, priests have brought sacramental healing and spiritual comfort to coronavirus victims and their families. Like other personnel entering a COVID-19 situation, some chaplains of hospitals or nursing homes have had to “gown up” with surgical scrubs, face shield and an N95 respirator mask. Columbia spoke with several of these priests who have, in recent weeks, given the last sacraments to COVID-19 patients.
‘THROUGH LOCKED DOORS’ Father Kurt Nagel was perhaps the first priest in the United States to anoint someone with a reported case of COVID-19.
Father Nagel, 59, is pastor of Holy Family Parish and a member of Obadiah Council 7642 in Kirkland, Wash., the site of one of the earliest outbreaks of the virus in the country. He is just minutes away from the Life Care Center nursing home, which has been linked to more than 40 coronavirus-related deaths.
A few days after the country’s first COVID-19 fatality was reported in Kirkland in early March, Father Nagel was called to administer last rites to a Life Care resident who was a parishioner. “We all knew at the time that Life Care was where the virus started to break out,” Father Nagel recalled. “I asked the family whether this person was COVID-positive. They said she wasn’t — that she had a heart condition.”
Since returning to active ministry, Father Nagel has anointed several others who died with COVID-19. While the demand for anointing has slowed down in recent weeks, Father Nagel still consoles families who are waiting to hear news of loved ones or grieving for those they’ve lost.
“That’s the sad part,” he said. “Families cannot come into the hospital rooms. They’re cut off and not allowed in.”
He added, “We’re so separate now that we can’t do funerals in Washington, other than for a handful of people.” Only parents, children and grandchildren are permitted to attend a private service.
Father Nagel takes inspiration for his ministry from the Gospel account of Christ appearing to the Apostles in a locked room after the Resurrection.
“What I do, I do in persona Christi. As a priest, you’re supposed to go through the locked doors to bring peace to the people who are afraid, and afraid of death,” he said. “The fact that the priest is here means that Jesus is showing up to bring healing forgiveness to the sick.”
Father Radu Titonea, 38, serves as a chaplain of a hospital in Queens, N.Y., the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. A native of Romania and a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Council 6243 in Brooklyn, Father Titonea ministers to patients at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills Hospital, which at one point was admitting an average of five to six COVID-19 patients daily.
“I go to the rooms every single day,” he said. “I bring the sacrament of the sick to those who need it because they are close to death.”
Catholic and non-Catholic patients alike welcome Father Titonea’s ministry.
“People ask me to pray with them in the emergency room because they are afraid they will be intubated,” he said. “Some of these patients are not Catholics, but they want prayers and words of encouragement.”
Father Titonea also ministers to the hospital staff, as stress and anxiety accompany the doctors and nurses making their rounds.
“Our staff does amazing work,” he said, noting that some staff members at Forest Hills also succumbed to the virus. “They all put their lives on the line in order to save others.”
Father Titonea’s mission is to make sure that faith, hope and charity permeate the wards at Forest Hills.
“All the time, I see the presence of God in different situations and how we ourselves are being guided by God,” he said. “I try to bring hope to the patients, staff members or families.”
In contemplating the suffering he has witnessed, Father Titonea has called to mind Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
“When he says to his Father, ‘Let this cup be taken away from me,’ you see Christ’s humanity,” he said. “But then, after a moment of silence, Christ says, ‘Not my will, but yours be done.’ He was acknowledging — as we must do during this crisis — that our God is a good God, and he is helping us. I acknowledge these things when I too say, ‘Your will be done.’”
Father Michael Trail, 30, is part of a special task force of 24 priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago charged with bringing the healing presence of Christ to those afflicted with COVID-19.
An associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Chicago and a member of Maria Stella Maris Council 15278, Father Trail’s mission is “to be present and minister to people with COVID,” he said. Team members, who are assigned different vicariates, or regions, of the archdiocese, were chosen based on certain criteria: They had to be under the age of 60, have a clean bill of health, and be willing to put their lives on the line for Christ. Other archdioceses, including Boston and Indianapolis, have formed similar task forces.
When the auxiliary bishop of Father Trail’s vicariate asked him to sign on, the young priest didn’t hesitate. “I had to be with my people,” he said. “If my people have COVID, I go to where they are — the hospital.”
Visiting patients two to three times a week, Father Trail has anointed more than a dozen coronavirus victims, and with each visit he sees anew the severity of the virus’ effects.
“I’ve been to many intensive care units during my ‘normal’ life,” he said, “but to see the entire ward so sick — that’s really startling.”
Father Trail said that Christ is not “sheltering in place” during the pandemic, but is out in the world, among those facing a lonely quarantine, and especially at the side of deathbeds.
“Christ is visiting homes and hospitals,” Father Trail said. “I’ve also seen Christ’s presence in the doctors and nurses and the way they’re present to their patients.”
He recalled one visit to COVID patients at a facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“As I prayed, the mother superior started stroking the hair of this 100-year-old patient who was getting ready to pass on,” he said. “In a moment where we had to be sterile to protect ourselves, Mother brought great comfort to this patient — I found that so moving.”
JOSEPH O’BRIEN is a freelance writer who lives in Soldiers Grove, Wis. He is a member of St. James the Greater Council 12606 in Gays Mill.
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