By Fr Jon Tveit (Archdiocese of New York)
It crosses the mind of the young and zealous seminarian from time to time what the priesthood might entail, what might have to be sacrificed and suffered for the sake of the sacerdotal ministry. One sees visions of the rack, the rope, the prison cell; one thinks of St. Edmund Campion, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei. What doesn’t cross one’s mind is the vision of a priest living comfortably in his rectory, helplessly unable to bring the grace and succor of the sacraments to those dying just down the road. But this has become the reality of the priesthood for many of us today.
The priests of my parish in the northern suburbs of New York cover a hospital in our town. The hospital has a chaplain on staff, but not a Catholic one, not a priest who can provide the sacraments, so for Catholic patients our parish’s priests are the de facto chaplains. One day in late March, the priest on duty received a call from the hospital to anoint a patient who was dying in the I.C.U. from the virus, our first such call. He responded and was able to visit the patient and to administer the sacraments.
The duty was mine the following day, so I was in possession of what we affectionately call the “Batphone,” the cell phone carried by the priest on call which serves as our parish’s emergency line. That afternoon the hospital’s palliative care nurse called and asked me whether we could add three names to our parish’s prayer list for the sick. These were COVID patients in critical condition, but it was now the hospital’s policy that no outside visitors would be admitted, not even priests. The nurse informed me that this ban on visitation extended to all patients, including those not suffering from the virus.
I hesitated in the face of this new policy, thinking there was little I could do if the hospital administration refused to let us in. But I decided to see whether anything could be done. After several emails up the chain from our local dean to our vicar general and phone calls with diocesan healthcare officials, it seems that some unseen hand intervened. A few days later, a week after our last visit to the hospital, I was able to gain entry. The policy now permitted us to visit non-COVID patients as usual, while, for those suffering with the virus, we would only be allowed to pray outside their rooms or to speak with them on the phone. The best we could do for them now was to speak the words of absolution and the apostolic pardon through the glass of their room windows.
Even in my small suburban town, the numbers of the sick and dead have been shocking. In one local nursing home alone nearly forty people have died as I write. One woman whom I had visited through her window in the I.C.U. later succumbed to the disease. A funeral Mass was out of the question, so the family asked me to lead a ceremony at her graveside. While we were waiting for the family to arrive—the ten or so members who were allowed to attend—I asked the funeral director how things were going for him. “Our county has been saying that only about sixty have died. I’ve buried sixty already.”
The hospital’s chaplain called me one day a month later to tell me that a particular patient needed the anointing of the sick. We had developed a fairly obvious system whereby the hospital would tell us to come for a visit and a blessing if the person were sick with the virus, but ask for the anointing of the sick for those without.
It was in the evening, just before the hospital went into its night mode at 8:00 P.M., when the only admittance for us would be through the entrance to the emergency room. The third-floor corridor was quiet. A nurse wearing a mask but no other P.P.E. was sitting at her rolling cart just outside the door to the room of the patient I was called in to anoint.
“Going in or coming out?” I asked.
“May I?” The nurse moved out of the way to let me in. The patient was an elderly man who was conscious and not intubated but for other reasons was not vocal. I anointed him and tears rolled down his face, less I think from gratitude for the sacramental grace than from confusion about where he was and what was happening to him.
One of the other priests returned from a visit to the hospital the next day. He asked whether I had visited that particular man the day prior. He told me that the man had been positive for the virus, having come from the nursing home where the infection was rife. The man had left the hospital that day, but the priest wasn’t sure in what manner. Well, I thought, thanks be to God.
It’s more than two weeks now since that visit and things proceed much as they have since late March. Many anointings administered, many more formulas of absolution whispered through glass. But by the grace of God, the hospital calls are fewer and further between.
In the seminary, we would often recall the dictum of Francis Cardinal George regarding the destinies of his successors. “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” His Eminence was right about his own death, but we have to wait to see whether the rest of his words will prove prophetic. Still in the days of his immediate successor to the see of Chicago, the sufferings we face today are other than the odium fidei the cardinal had in mind.
The lowly priest must conform his life to that of the High Priest, since his office is nothing other than the continuation of that one Priesthood. While for some this may entail crucifixion, the priestly imitation of Christ is often less dramatic.