A resident in Chelsea watches a man being loaded into an ambulance April 17, after being tested positive for the coronavirus. CNS photo//Brian Snyder, Reuters
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BRAINTREE -- With the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 reaching into the thousands, the archdiocese is organizing teams of priests to provide the Sacrament of the Sick to COVID-19 patients in danger of death.
Currently, 19 priests are being organized into eight teams that will serve COVID-19 patients at hospitals in different areas of the archdiocese. To eliminate the risk of cross-contamination between hospitals and local communities, the priests will live in formerly empty rectories and practice isolation and social distancing. They will serve exclusively in this ministry throughout the remainder of the health crisis.
Father Robert M. Blaney, secretary for ministerial personnel, said the idea for this initiative developed out of the need for more hospital chaplains. Some Catholic hospital chaplains are not priests and so cannot perform the Anointing of the Sick. Several chaplains have also had to step back from their work because their age or health would put them in more danger if they were to contract COVID-19.
"This team is backing up the very good work that our priest chaplains are already doing in the hospitals," Father Blaney said in an April 20 interview.
MC Sullivan, chief healthcare ethicist of the archdiocese, said this need had been expressed to her by clinical staff and healthcare leaders. Because the COVID-19 virus is so contagious, she explained, hospitals have "severely reduced" access to their facilities and minimized staff contact with patients. Some hospitals are not allowing visitors, and many are reluctant to allow priests in to provide the Sacrament of the Sick.
"We are making it possible for (patients) to have the Sacrament of the Sick, even if their condition or the regulations in the hospital make that difficult to happen," Sullivan said.
At the direction of Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, the archdiocese's leadership decided to recruit priests whose task during the pandemic would be exclusively to minister to COVID-19 patients, providing the Anointing of the Sick and the Apostolic Pardon to those who are critically ill and dying.
"The timing of this is wonderful because we are getting to the surge. So even in places where there are priests, they will be happy to have the backup or to know that it's there," Sullivan said on April 17, referring to the increase of cases expected in the following 10 days.
Sullivan led a remote training session via Zoom on April 16 to explain how the Sacrament of the Sick for Seriously Ill and Dying Patients with COVID-19 Initiative would be carried out. Priests under the age of 45 who had no preexisting medical conditions were invited to watch and consider volunteering. Many of them invited priests above the age cutoff to participate in the training, as well.
The training covered many practical aspects of the ministry: how to follow hospital guidelines, which may vary slightly; how to avoid close contact with patients; and how to maintain social distancing at home. Sullivan's presentation was followed by an extensive question-and-answer session.
Over 80 priests participated in the training session, and the volunteers for the initiative included priests who are over 45 years but have no medical issues.
"It's very much a high-risk activity that these men are taking on, and I'm grateful to them for that," Sullivan said.
She said she thinks the initiative is a sign that the Church is still present and active despite needing to halt many ministerial activities during the pandemic.
"The Church not only hasn't gone away, they do run into harm's way to serve the faithful," Sullivan said.