Archdiocese forming team of priests trained to anoint Catholics dying of COVID-19

| April 20, 2020 | 0 Comments

A nurse in New York City wipes away tears as she stands outside NYU Langone Medical Center as New York Police Department Mounted Police and other units came to cheer and thank health care workers April 16 during the coronavirus pandemic. CNS

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota continues to climb, Bishop Andrew Cozzens is leading efforts to build a team of priests who can respond to requests for anointing of the sick for people who may be in danger of death from the novel coronavirus.

On April 17, he and Archbishop Bernard Hebda sent a letter to priests seeking volunteers, and by the next day, the response had already been generous, he said.

“Basically, we want to be prepared for the worst, even though we’re hoping for the best,” he said. “The Church always has special care for the dying, and we especially want to give them peace of conscience, and the sacraments can do that.”

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis already has about 10 chaplains who regularly minister in hospitals, but the archdiocese’s leaders thought it was wise to expand that team during the pandemic. Following the lead of the archdioceses of Boston, Indianapolis and Chicago, these priests will be specially trained to properly wear personal protective equipment and follow protocols to anoint in a way that minimizes their risk of contracting the virus or spreading it to others.

Archdiocesan leaders plan to identify 10 to 15 priests for the team. Candidates must be under 50 years old and have no underlying health conditions. Ideally, they will also be geographically spread across the archdiocese. Bishop Cozzens hopes the team can be assembled and trained by the end of April.

“If at all possible, we want to provide ways for (the dying) to receive the sacraments,” he said. “But given the grave, negative effects of contracting this disease, we have to be extra cautious. And so, we wouldn’t just send in a priest without proper training and protection and consideration of his own personal condition.”

Priests will be trained to go into hospitals, nursing homes or residential homes to offer anointings, also known as the sacrament of the sick and formerly known as extreme unction. Anointing of the sick is part of last rites, which include confession and holy Communion. When a person at risk of imminent death is unable to confess or receive the Eucharist, only anointing of the sick is administered.

Some of the archdiocese’s hospital chaplains and parish priests have already anointed Catholics sick with COVID-19, Bishop Cozzens said. Current chaplains have been trained at the hospitals they serve on how to protect themselves from contracting the virus, he noted.

“What we want to do is provide priests who can back up those (chaplain) priests if the hospitals get busier, as well as provide priests who could do the same at homes and even in nursing homes, if possible,” Bishop Cozzens said.

While precautions that can be taken during anointing have been long established, the Holy See has clarified how to minister to COVID-19 patients, Bishop Cozzens said. For example, during anointing of the sick, the priest anoints the head and hands of the person receiving the sacrament with a holy oil known as oil of the sick. To minimize contact between the priest and COVID-19 patients, priests are allowed to use a sterile cotton ball or swab, rather than their fingers. Ahead of the anointing, the priest prepares the cotton ball with the oil and places it in a sealable plastic bag. After its use, the cotton ball is sealed in the bag and both are burned.

The team of priests in the archdiocese will receive training online from leaders in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which in early April created its own team of 30 priests to anoint COVID-19 patients.

Anointing of the sick is generally available to anyone who has an illness that could cause death. However, because the novel coronavirus is highly contagious, the new anointing team in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is prepared only to respond to COVID-19 patients near death, Bishop Cozzens said.

“In the case with COVID, you wouldn’t want to uselessly endanger someone else to get the disease, even the priest,” he said. “If it’s very clear that the person is not going to die, but they do have COVID, we would probably recommend they not be anointed until it’s clearer they’re going to die — if, God forbid, that comes.”

Someone requesting the sacrament for a person who may be dying from COVID-19 should contact his or her parish, which will alert the priest team’s coordinators. Those coordinators will assess the situation and assign a priest from the area for anointing.

Bishop Cozzens noted that the anointing of the sick prays for healing — even if it’s spiritual, not physical healing — as well as offers special graces and the forgiveness of sins to help a dying person prepare for death.
But, he said, should a person die without receiving the anointing of the sick, that doesn’t mean that they died without the graces that flow from that sacrament.

“God never denies grace to those who need it and ask for it,” he said. “We know that the sacraments are the surest way to receive grace, but God’s not bound by the sacraments, and so if someone’s not able to receive the sacraments, that doesn’t prevent them from receiving the grace that leads to salvation, because God desires to save all of us.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story erroneously reported that longtime Twin Cities hospital chaplain Father Jerome Fehn is assisting with training the local team. He is not involved.

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