By Jo Ann Zuñiga
HOUSTON (CNS) — Even as the public has grown weary of the pandemic, Catholic chaplains at hospitals continue to work hard ministering to patients with COVID-19 and those battling other illnesses.
Hospitals themselves are struggling to meet the needs of patients amid staff shortages.
“Some hospitals have whole units shut down because their staff is ill. The ones still working tell us that they feel forgotten now that the public has tired of dealing with COVID-19,” said lay chaplain Nannette Coons.
In December at Houston Methodist Hospital, despite challenges of pandemic restrictions, Coons was among several people who were able to do something special for a family battling a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
After many tries, permission for a special ceremony was granted.
Tomas Gonzalez, in his hospital gown, and wife Maria Angeles, dressed in white and carrying a bouquet of red and white roses, gazed at Father Philip Wilhite, their pastor from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe, Texas, as he knelt before them in the hospital room on Christmas Day.
The priest dipped his thumb in holy chrism and anointed the forehead of 50-year-old Gonzalez for the anointing of the sick. The couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Nataly, and a family friend, Francisca Cabello, witnessed the ceremony as Father Wilhite helped to convalidate the couple’s marriage as a sacrament.
“I played a very small part in it. Tomas and Angeles have been together for 15 years and wanted to become closer to God through the sacraments, but were never married by the church,” Father Wilhite told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
“They wanted to give the Christ Child their gift of a sacramental marriage and make that covenant with God,” the priest added.
Shortly before the wedding, Tomas also received the sacrament of reconciliation and received holy Communion given to him by Father Desmond Daniels, a hospital chaplain and member of the archdiocese’s Catholic Chaplain Corps.
“We put ourselves in God’s hands. If God needs him, he will take him. If he wills him to stay, he will stay with us. I have peace in my heart now,” Angeles said.
Coons and another lay chaplain, Zoe Krizak, both of whom are also corps members, diligently worked to get the hospital’s permission for the ceremony in the intensive care unit despite restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They double-checked that the family had obtained a marriage license and other necessary paperwork as offices began closing for the holidays. They also began checking with priests’ hectic schedules, especially during the busy Christmas season. And they prayed for a miracle.
“The wedding was so beautiful to witness,” Krizak said. “Despite the circumstances, there was a lot of joy. The couple was so happy to be getting married.”
Coons credited Krizak for her “relentless persistence” in maneuvering through hospital policies to obtain permission for the wedding by talking with nurses, social worker and hospital administrators.
“People kept saying ‘no’ because of restrictions, which we understood. But she would try again, going to the next person, to the next level, and kept knocking on doors until we finally had a ‘yes,'” Coons said.
Gonzalez was discharged from the hospital and went home for the new year to be with family. He recently returned to the hospital after he and his daughter contracted COVID-19, but is now home again. Yet the family said they will share the journey ahead together no matter how stressful.
With the latest COVID-19 surge coming around the holidays, most hospitals faced staff shortages and restricted visitors to one per patient.
And amid a feeling the public is tired of COVID-19, to show that the community still cares, Coons asked her 67 commissioned pastoral visitors from various parishes in the Conroe and Woodlands area north of Houston to support hospital ministry.
Because the volunteers cannot go inside the hospitals, they filled 10,000 care bags with prayer cards, handwritten letters, lip balm, snacks and treats to boost medical staff morale.
Zuñiga writes for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.