Front-line emergency personnel such as EMTs, nurses, doctors are doing heroic work to fight the coronavirus and the danger it poses to us all. But when medicine has reached a limit for what it can offer a patient whose life is in danger from COVID-19, what happens next?
Another set of heroes is stepping forward in this pandemic: priests.
News stories are starting to paint a picture of how priests are also gearing up and stepping into harm’s way to accompany people in the most difficult moment of their lives. That exposure puts them in danger — Pope Francis has called them “the saints next door, priests who gave their lives in service.”
The stories began in Italy, where more than 60 priests died of COVID-19 because they were attending to the sick in hospital ministry. “You choose this life to be useful to others,” Father Giovanni Paolini told The New York Times. “Staying home is the right thing to do… But I am a priest and sometimes it is necessary to bend the law to meet people’s needs.”
As the pandemic has spread to the U.S., the Church has begun to respond. The Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, created a 24-priest response team to visit the critically sick in hospitals. The team is comprised of healthy priests younger than 60 who cover their typical black clerical attire and collar with a sterile jumpsuit and other protective equipment to offer the anointing of the sick to those in danger of death.
Father Matt O’Donnell told The Chicago Tribune that the effort reflects the Church’s “commitment to making sure that to people who are in a very vulnerable state of their life that they can be shown that they are not alone.
“I think that the risk has been explained to us, but all of us realize this is what our priesthood is meant to be about,” he said. “It’s to bring Christ to people and to bring a sense of hope to people might otherwise be in a place of despair.”
The effects of the pandemic have been felt deeply in New York, and a group of Dominican friars there have been also pulled into the fight. Since the 1940s, this community has been ministering to people in nursing homes and hospitals, and when the coronavirus arrived, they didn’t back down from the danger — or from the people they serve who are dying from it.
“I started to think about, maybe I could get this. Maybe it could kill me,” said Father John Devaney, OP. “What gives me hope is that in the Catholic funeral liturgy, it says, life hasn’t ended, it has changed. So for me the hope is that there is a supernatural reality we can’t see, that there is eternal life, life in eternity. And that death doesn’t have the final word.”
The pandemic is asking a lot of all of us, and we should rightly honor those who are giving more — often everything they have — to serve those who are suffering from the illness. Those heroes include medical personnel who attend the sick bodies, essential workers who keep us fed and safe, and also Catholic priests who are extending hope and consolation to the dying and fearful.