Text alerts unite Catholics in prayer for COVID-19 patients who will receive anointing

| May 14, 2020 | 0 Comments

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is sending text alerts requesting prayers whenever a priest is sent to offer anointing of the sick to someone dying of COVID-19. MARIA WIERING | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

On May 6, Faith Pawl signed up to receive text messages letting her know someone with COVID-19 was going to receive anointing of the sick, an indication that the person was likely near death.

By 4 p.m. that day, she had already received six messages.

“I was just blown away to have these texts rolling in. It just made the whole crisis very palpable,” said Pawl, a parishioner of St. Mark in St. Paul. “It’s the mystical body of Christ. These are members of my Church. … And it’s so different to think about the crisis when you’re thinking about it as individual people.”

The text alerts are part of an initiative of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which has formed a team of priests specifically trained to provide anointing of the sick to people dying of COVID-19. When a member of that team is dispatched, the archdiocese sends out a prayer alert, asking people to pray an Our Father for the person near death, a Hail Mary for the patient’s family, and a Glory Be in thanksgiving for the priest and for his protection, as well as the patient’s medical team.

The text alerts began May 4, the same day the Anointing Corps priests completed their training. As of May 14, more than 850 people had signed up to receive the alerts, and 18 texts had been sent.

Known as the Anointing Corps, the priests are volunteers who responded to a request Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens sent April 17, asking them to consider adding this responsibility to their current roles. A dozen priests were selected, all under 50 with no underlying health conditions that would make them more susceptible to the novel coronavirus.

Anointing of the sick is typically available to anyone with a condition that could lead to death. However, because of the extraordinary situation surrounding COVID-19, especially its contagion level and the personal protective gear the priests use, the Anointing Corps priests are responding only when patients are near death, Bishop Cozzens told The Catholic Spirit. They are following hospital and nursing home protocols, and also visiting people’s homes.

To request an anointing, people contact their parishes. That request is forwarded to nurse volunteers, who evaluate whether a priest should be immediately dispatched. If so, they notify a member of the Anointing Corps.

Catholics across the archdiocese have been invited to support the team and “those who are suffering most intensely, usually in sterile isolation, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the archdiocese states on its website.

The text alerts are identical, beginning with an invitation: “Please now pray one Our Father for someone suffering from COVID-19 who is about to be anointed in our archdiocese.” They include the prayers and their purposes, and invoke Mary, Mother of the Church, and St. Roch, a 14th-century Mediterranean saint traditionally invoked against plague. To join the text-based prayer chain, people can text “archspm-anointing” to 55321.

When Pawl receives a text, she said she tries to pray immediately, often with her husband and their five children.

“You see the numbers, you see the statistics about what the daily infection rates are and how many people die. But it just seems really abstract,” said Pawl, 40, a philosophy instructor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “This has been really powerful to get these texts. It’s been a blessing … to get to pray for people, and just to have that reminder that this is very real.”

Kaye Roan, a parishioner of St. Boniface in Cold Spring who used to live in Minneapolis, also signed up for the text alerts within the initiative’s first week.

“For me, it’s very emotional because you feel a connection with that person,” said Roan, 81.

She noted that many of the people who are dying are near her age. “I know that many of these (people) grew up thinking that they would be anointed at death. That just (wasn’t) happening now, and now it is, in most cases,” she said.

The text alerts complement a related initiative, an email-based prayer chain for health care workers. The archdiocese is inviting anyone who works in health care — from doctors to therapists to hospital maintenance — to sign up for prayers. All Catholics are invited to join an email list to pray for them at the archdiocese’s website.

The website also contains resources for health care workers, including links to the local chapter of the Curatio apostolate, an organization of Catholic health care workers.
Coordinating these efforts are Deacon Steven Koop, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, and Father Larry Blake, chaplain at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a former hospital chaplain.

“This is a group of people that are under a lot of stress,” said Deacon Koop, who ministers at St. Rita in Cottage Grove. “There is a group of health care workers who are tending to the COVID patients, and they’re the most obviously stressed. The entire health care system is stressed because of all the routine care that we would normally do has been disrupted.”

Health care workers who request to be part of the archdiocese’s prayer chain can provide their name or choose to remain anonymous. “We give them the option to identify themselves to the degree they wish,” he said.

As for those who are signing up to pray, the ability to offer prayer helps Catholics overcome feelings of helplessness in the face of the pandemic, Deacon Koop said.

A former U.S. Air Force chaplain, Father Blake compares the situation to “a war against this invisible enemy,” the novel coronavirus, and said he sees parallels between the experiences of health care workers and deployed soldiers, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“We’re in a battle right now,” he said. “And some are called to be on the front lines. Others are called to support those that are on the front lines. And so whether it’s praying for health care workers, or praying for those who are sick, or for the priests who are visiting them and anointing them, perhaps offering them the … last rites, all of that is part of this whole large-scale battle that we’re in.”

And offering one’s prayers is not just “a nice thing to say,” he added.

“The power of prayer — it’s a tremendous power,” he said. “We’re coming up on the feast of Pentecost, where we’re reminded that the disciples were gathered in that room and they’re praying. And then the Holy Spirit came upon them in such a powerful way. … We believe that there is a such thing as a ‘prayer warrior,’ and that the power of that is tremendous to provide support, healing for those who are sick, (and) comfort for family members who have lost a loved one. All of that is part of what we can do as the Church.”

More information about the archdiocese’s COVID-19-related prayer efforts, including how to sign up for the text alerts or health care worker prayer chain, is at archspm.org/covid19prayers.

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