Priests respond to pandemic, offer sacrament of anointing

Diocese allowing only priests under age 60 to visit hospitals

ALLOUEZ — While the sacrament of anointing of the sick at medical centers continues, procedures have changed for priests due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One significant change is the age of the priests visiting hospitals. Currently, priests age 60 and older are not doing anointings in the diocese due to an increased health risk.

“HSHS (Hospital Sisters Health System) started that directive for their hospitals, so the diocese made it a principle for all our priests,” explained Fr. Luke Ferris, vicar for clergy and pastoral leaders.

“All three hospital systems in the Green Bay area have allowed priests to come and anoint anyone in danger of death when the person or family requests the anointing,” he added. “Those calls usually begin with a chaplain notifying the on-call priest.”

Since the March 24 “safer-at-home” order has been issued in Wisconsin, Fr. Ferris has been called each week to do an anointing. The absence of family members has heightened the difficulty of some situations. He explained that a nursing assistant was asked to be with a patient until a family member was finally allowed in the room because of the nearness of death for the person.

“The nurses all comment how appreciative they are for a priest to come because no other family is allowed,” he said. “The nurses find it harder to care for people when the patient is all alone.”

Fr. Joe Dorner, pastor at St. Bernadette and Sacred Heart parishes, Appleton, told The Compass that most of his calls for anointings have come from the hospitals, but he has also received a couple calls from family members. Fr. Dorner has done anointings at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center in Neenah and Appleton, and Ascension St. Elizabeth Hospital, Appleton.

“If anybody from the family calls, I call the chaplain first,” explained Fr. Dorner. “At St. Elizabeth, the chaplain meets me at the emergency room door. They check my temperature, ask me if I have a cough and give me a mask.”

He further explained that no one other than the chaplain has been allowed in the room with him for an anointing at St. Elizabeth. Family members have been allowed at ThedaCare. COVID-19 patients are housed on the eighth floor at ThedaCare, which has negative pressure rooms to contain airborne contaminants. Fr. Dorner anointed a non-COVID-19 patient on the eighth floor.

The National Association of Catholic Chaplains and the Catholic Health Association released a questions and answers document for sacramental practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. One question addresses if a priest, who takes protective measures, should touch the patient or use an instrument to administer the “Oil of the Sick.”

According to the document: “The Code of Canon Law allows for an ‘instrument to be used for serious reasons to avoid direct contact with the person.’ That instrument could be a cotton swab or a surgical glove. The priest must safeguard himself and follow the safety protocols of the institution.”

Only the amount of holy oil needed for the sacrament should be used in a disposable container.

“Both the paper containing the prayer/ritual and the receptacle of the oil need to be disposed of in the patient’s room before leaving the room,” reads the document.

The sacrament of reconciliation is also addressed by the two associations. The document reads: “If it is possible to communicate in-person, privately, and with the necessary protection against exposure to the virus, it might be possible to hear confessions. If the local bishop has authorized the use of General Absolution, it might to possible to absolve groups of patients from the doorway of a ward.”

It states: “Phone conversations between patients and chaplains (whether priest, lay, or religious) can be considered important and healing pastoral visits, assuring the person of God’s forgiveness through the directives noted above. ‘The message of Pope Francis extends to you is of the church’s ongoing prayer for your spiritual welfare and to be assured of God’s full mercy and forgiveness. Let’s call upon God together with trust with the Lord’s Prayer.’”

Fr. Dorner has been surprised by the low number of patients at the hospitals he has visited.

“I’ve never seen hospitals this quiet,” he said. “The parking lot seemed pretty bare. That’s good news. I worry sometimes about the fear of this situation and that effect.”

Both Fr. Dorner and Fr. Ferris are thankful to be able to continue to do anointings in this time of uncertainty.

“It’s a privilege to continue to offer that sacrament and prayer,” said Fr. Dorner.

“I’m always moved by the presence of God and the sacredness of those moments when a person is close to leaving this world,” said Fr. Ferris. “In most cases, the patient is not responsive, so it’s harder to pray the prayers when no one is around to respond, especially family members to accompany the last journey.”