Last rites to COVID-19 patients

Priest shares his experience ministering to critically ill

Editor’s note: The following column was written by a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay who asked to remain anonymous. In his column, the priest shares his experience of offering the last rites to Catholics who contracted the COVID-19 virus. He also reminds Catholics about the importance of receiving the sacrament of anointing.

I am an anonymous priest from an unnamed town, not unlike the one you live in. These days, I wear a mask.

Allow me to offer you this reflection on the experience of offering the last rites to patients who are dying of COVID-19. To be clear, I have only had this experience twice. I wondered, “Why me?” It had nothing to do with holiness or personality. This unique mission required that the priest selected be from a particular age bracket with a good health history. I suppose I also needed to be willing to put myself at risk. When the call came, what was I to do? Say no?

A priest wears a respirator mask in this photo illustration. A diocesan priest who asked to remain anonymous offered his first-hand experiences ministering to hospitalized COVID-19 patients. (Photo Illustration, Sam Lucero | The Compass)

The first call came early on in the crisis, when even less was known about this mysterious virus. The first five minutes after that phone call were spent on my knees begging for protection and mercy. This virus is known to be a killer. Questions flooded my mind. I could hear the voices of well-meaning cradle Catholics asking, “Do you really believe that God would let someone go to hell for dying without the sacrament?”

A series of lies were presented to my mind at that moment. “Everyone would understand if you just stayed home. It’s not worth the risk. You can just say a prayer for the person right here.” Shaking off the barrage of confusing thoughts, I prayed the rosary on the way to the hospital and uttered some sort of, “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”

In denial about death

Most people refuse to use the term “last rites,” even though the church still uses it. We are all in denial about death I suppose, and we priests are also afraid that the people we anoint will not get better after their anointing and that they will feel that God let them down. We say things like, “Maybe the real miracle is that it brought people together at your bedside.” In seminary we were trained to focus more on how to perform the rite and on our bedside manner than on the mystery of it all.

The COVID-19 crisis woke me from my sacramental slumber. I had to admit, as I was driving to the hospital, that this sacrament is either about Jesus saving someone from sin, death and the devil, or I might as well just stay home.

I arrived at the hospital. A doctor met me at the door. He snuck me an N95 mask and told me not to say a word about it. They took my temperature and questioned me. I was told, “No one is allowed to go to that floor.” I tried to convince them that I was called there. The doctor cleared matters up and started walking me to the wing.

The patient would obviously have no family present for the anointing. I was called in because the patient checked the Catholic box on the intake form and because the doctor felt passionate about the sacrament. The patient was hours from death. The patient’s spouse was suffering with COVID-19 at a different hospital. The doctor said aloud a few times, “I think you will be safe. Keep it to 30 seconds in the room.” I should remind you that this sacrament is impossible to impart without physical contact, at least with a cotton ball (Canon 1000 §2).

‘This is where I stop I’m not going in’

When we reached the sealed area of the hospital, the doctor turned to me abruptly and said, “This is where I stop. I’m not going in. You go. They know you are coming.” For some reason I thought he was coming with me, but I was wrong. I walked alone past many warning signs, down two hallways, before I found a generous and joyful group of nurses. They envied my N95 mask since it was not something, they had access to at the time.

It was clear that at least one person was questioning whether a supposedly simple 30-second prayer was worth spending a gown, a mask, gloves and goggles. They would all be thrown away after the fact. We talked through the procedures together. I needed to have all my ducks in a row; holy water, priestly stole, anointing oil, apostolic pardon and the prayer of commendation. The last two additions are what made this particular anointing the “last rites,” with the exception of Viaticum (final Communion) which I was not able to give due to a feeding tube.

I entered the room. The patient was writhing in pain. There were two tubes going down the patient’s throat. The patient seemed in a state of delirium. The patient was on heavy oxygen because the lungs stopped absorbing it due to the virus. I said to myself, “This is not the flu, this is really messed up.” I began the rite, and there is nothing romantic about saying these prayers in such a hurry. As a priest, you feel nothing other than compassion. There is no pulse of energy running through your body and there are no choirs of angels singing over your head.

Apostles anointed the sick

It takes great faith to believe that these prayers and that sacred oil do something to change the state of someone’s soul. Yet this is what Jesus revealed we are supposed to do. The apostles anointed the sick at Jesus’ command (Mk 6:13), the Holy Spirit put it clearly in the Letter of James (Jas 5:14), and the church has always embraced this activity. Whether I was oblivious to the mystery happening in that hospital room, it happened. Before I left, I decided to reattach the patient’s SpO2 monitor since it had become detached and a nurse would need to completely robe-up just to fix it. It’s a good thing I worked in a hospital before!

When I left, I affirmed the nurses profusely. Then there was a thorough scrub down. I changed some of my clothes outside my car. I threw my shoes away. I went home and realized that I could not talk about this work because people would be afraid to come near me.

That first patient miraculously lived. The next call came two weeks later. That patient died two hours after I was there. The second patient is someone I consider a friend.

Moral of the story

Here are the takeaways I want you to gain from this story. First, take a deep and prayerful look at the anointing of the sick and the last rites. They are not merely about comfort and soothing words. They really are about grace and salvation. There is a “binding and loosing” power that requires the priesthood for this sacrament and we need to put our faith in the unseen.

Second, make sure you request the sacrament at all cost for yourself or for your Catholic family member who is sick or dying. Tell your nurse, tell your doctor, tell the chaplain, and in fact, tell all three. Ask for it for the right reason and ask with the right faith.

Lastly, I am not a heroic priest. I cannot think of one priest who would not do what I did. We do not always know why or how, but we do it out of obedience and for love of the Lord Jesus Christ. The priesthood matters; just like you matter to someone in your life. I pray that there will be a priest, any priest, available when I am dying. I lose more sleep at night over that prayer request, that the last rites will find their way to me in my final hour, than worrying about getting a virus that can kill the body, but not kill the soul.