More and more people are suffering great afflictions, and even dying, alone in their hospital rooms as this pandemic continues. Other than in the rare diocese, the issue is not that bishops have suspended Anointing of the Sick or administering of Last Rites. The issue is primarily that some hospitals—who are frantically trying to control what they largely cannot control, that is, the death of the body—are refusing to allow priests to minister to the sick or dying. This extends to both COVID-19 patients and patients with other serious health maladies who are in the hospital.
The problem is, we as Catholics have largely acquiesced to this view. Rather than fighting for priests to be able to minister to the sick and the dying, the vast majority of Catholics are simply brushing it aside as “necessary” or with rather superficial statements such as “God will have mercy on them anyway.” This type of thinking is a reflection of the materialism of the culture, coupled with the moral therapeutic deism that is as prevalent in the Church as it is in the culture. It is also deeply uncharitable.
Let us consider for a moment what it would be like to be one of these individuals—our brother or sister in Christ—who is alone in their hospital room, only visited by doctors and nurses whose faces they wouldn’t even recognize on the street because of all of the protective gear they are wearing. The latter alone would be difficult and surreal for most people. Even as a people of the Resurrection with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, death is still difficult to confront and bodily afflictions are hard to bear. It is why Christ instituted Anointing of the Sick and why the Church performs Last Rites.
To be alone day-in-and-day out as one’s lungs or other organs shut down is a deeply painful, lonely, agonizing, and terrifying prospect for the person who is not yet a saint, especially when that illness comes on suddenly. This is the same for those who are being treated for a heart attack, stroke, or other serious health issue who are alone due to hospital restrictions. It would be alarming to be intubated while gasping for breath unsure of whether or not you will wake up and you haven’t been able to have recourse to a priest. The final Sacraments prepare us for standing before Our Lord should death come.
The priest’s role in Anointing of the Sick, as well as in Last Rites, is to be a healer and strengthener of souls primarily. Yes, Anointing can heal bodily affliction, but it heals spiritually more often. Confession and Holy Communion are, when possible, given at the same time. The priest is there to offer the strength of Christ through the Sacraments and also in his own person as he stands in alter Christus. Largely thanks to our materialist thinking, the true power of the priesthood in this role is often ignored and/or under-utilized. True, most priests are not given the grace to bodily heal in the same manner as the Apostles or certain saints, but they still possess tremendous power by virtue of their ordination.
Yesterday’s first reading for Daily Mass from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 3:1-10), expresses the healing abilities of the priesthood that goes beyond the obvious physical healing of the crippled man. St. Peter and St. John tell the crippled man to “Look at us.” Their gaze is enough to heal this man as St. Peter gives him what he possesses: Jesus Christ. He then gets up and walks with them praising God.
The gaze of the priest truly grounded in his identity in Christ has the power to bring spiritual healing to the fearful, afflicted, and the dying in the same manner as St. Peter and St. John. He may not physically heal the sick—or he may through the power of the Holy Spirit—but his loving gaze can send demons to flight and bring peace to a soul gripped by the fear of death. He can transform the desolate and broken person into a renewed or converted Christian disciple who is praising God as they prepare for their death or greater trials in affliction. The priest who walks through the halls of a hospital, radiant with the joy of the Glorified and Resurrected Christ, has the ability to transform the world around him as a mediator of God’s graces.
The Enemy preys on us when we are weakest. His greatest weapon is fear, which is why Christ commands us to be not afraid. This is, of course, easier said than done in our Fallen state.
There are times we need our priests to be the loving gaze of Christ in order to dispel the demons preying on us in our weakest moments. An individual lying alone in a hospital bed with only the sound of machines and daytime television to keep them company is easy prey. They need the priest standing in as another Christ to enter into that darkness and despair and bring them the light of Christ. The medical community also needs the witness of priests.
Yes, Christ is merciful and during times such as these we cling to His love and mercy for those who cannot receive the Sacraments, but that does not mean we stop fighting to get the Sacraments to the sick and the dying. We do not get to simply pat ourselves on the back and pretend as if what is happening to these people in their darkest hour is acceptable. It is deeply distressing.
As Catholics, we have an obligation to resist those who would deny us the free exercise of our Faith. We have a duty in charity to minister to the sick and the dying and not leave them alone. If a doctor, nurse, or respiratory therapist can work at the hospital and go home or grocery shopping, then a priest can certainly come minister to the sick while wearing the same protective gear as the hospital staff.
The greatest tragedy in all of this is not the virus itself. It is that people who are sick and/or dying are being denied the Sacraments and the witness of the priest during their greatest desolation. We have allowed ourselves to abandon many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are alone on the Cross because we live in a culture that is increasingly hostile to our Faith.
The sick and the dying need to be healed spiritually even more than they need to be healed physically. This is a truth that we as Catholics must come to embrace again. Too many of us have fallen into the trap of placing bodily health over spiritual health.
I hope and pray that our bishops will speak with a unified voice calling on governments and hospitals to allow priests to minister to the sick and the dying. We must also do our part by insisting on a priest being allowed to minister to our sick or dying loved ones.
St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, ora pro nobis.