The Tablet Staff
Two weeks ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago, under the leadership of Cardinal Blase Cupich, decided to recruit a group of volunteer priests to visit and give last rites to terminally ill coronavirus patients.
The pandemic has left Catholics around the world without access to the sacraments. Measures taken by medical authorities to contain the pandemic include restricting family visits to hospitalized patients. The necessary measure has resulted in many people dying in the hospital without the company of their family and many Catholics dying without a visit from a priest.
During this pandemic, Catholic patients often talk with their priest by phone to pray together, but sacraments can’t be administered over the phone.
Having access to the sacrament of anointing of the sick or last rites when a person is in danger of dying is extremely important and consoling for Catholics.
“In our Catholic tradition, to have the last rites is a privilege and a deep desire for a person to make their peace with God before they meet God,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We do believe the sacrament is very, very, very important when a person is dying, and they have a right to it.”
When asking for volunteers, the archdiocese only contacted priests who are under 60 years old and don’t have a chronic illness. Once the volunteers were selected, the archdiocese, with the help of medical professionals, offered them a two-and-a-half-hour training session. The priests learned the proper protocols to visit coronavirus patients and also received all the necessary protective equipment. Now, the archdiocese has a team of 24 priests ministering to coronavirus patients.
If a family member calls their local parish to have a priest visit a person who is gravely ill with COVID-19, the parish notifies the archdiocese. Then, one of the priests of the team is sent to administer the anointing of the sick or the last rites to the sick person.
When they visit patients in a hospital, they wear sterile jumpsuits, plastic glasses, face masks, hair nets, shoe coverings, and plastic gloves. They follow the hospital’s rules and their visit to each patient usually lasts no more than five minutes.
One of the priests in the team is Father Matt O’Donnell, 34, the pastor of St. Columbanus Parish in Chicago’s South Side Park Manor neighborhood. He is young and healthy but understands the risk involved in this special ministry.
“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 who might otherwise be in a place of despair.”