SCRANTON – One of the most daunting challenges the coronavirus health crisis has posed is the clergy’s vocational call to minister spiritually to the gravely ill and those near death.

Indicating that throughout the ages the Church has dedicated great care to the spiritual needs of the ill and homebound – and that in times of crisis such needs are even more urgent – Father Tom Petro, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Dupont, said, “The Church’s ministers, sometimes at great personal cost, always strive to bring the sacraments to the sick and the dying. This current pandemic has changed much about the way we conduct ourselves, even the way we care for one another.”

Hospitals have imposed greater restrictions and guidelines for visitors of all patients, even those not afflicted with the coronavirus. Nursing homes that once hosted Masses for their residents have suspended such services, and pastors and deacons have seen a drastic reduction in Holy Communion calls for their homebound parishioners.

“With each of these specific challenges,” Father Petro said, “the priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist in our parishes are adapting to meet the needs of those whom they serve.”

Answering the Call

Indicative of these trials and speaking on behalf of their clerical colleagues in our local Church and around the world, two young priests of the Diocese of Scranton recently recounted their experiences in encountering COVID-19 head on in an effort to provide hands-on spiritual care in a healthcare combat zone.

Ordained just two years ago, Father Ryan Glenn began his priestly ministry as an assistant pastor at Saint John Neumann Parish in South Scranton, where he served until his recent appointment to Saint Matthew Parish in East Stroudsburg.

Father Glenn recalled a “most beautiful encounter” during the height of the pandemic in early spring when he was summoned to a nursing facility to provide the sacrament of anointing of the sick.

Following a myriad of temperature checks, questionnaires and signatures, he was allowed entry into the facility and was immediately armed with a thick plastic outer garment, a second mask (to be placed over his own), and a pair of surgical gloves.

“I then found my way to the patient’s room,” Father remembered. “The patient was unconscious, but the nurse who called me (for the visit) remained at her side, as did two other staff members. Together, we represented the Church as we surrounded one of our fellow Christians,” who was near death.

After reciting the Prayers of the Anointing ritual, the young priest anointed the patient’s head and hands using a cotton swab dipped in the Sacred Oils and offered the commendation of the dying.

Upon leaving the room with the two hospital staffers, Father Glenn became aware the nurse remained in the room to whisper her last goodbyes to the patient. The scene was palpable.

“In the midst of the many medical demands of that moment, the nurse knew the power of prayer and the importance of faith for her patient,” he remarked. “It was a privileged moment of grace for me, not only to accompany this dying person at the end of life, but also to witness the goodness and humanity of this front line hero.”

Being Christ for the Dying

Prior to receiving his new appointment as Diocesan Director of Vocations and Seminarians, Father Alex Roche served as the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Lake Silkworth.

While shepherding the small, rural Luzerne County parish in early April, Father Roche received a call from a woman whose older relative was in a nearby nursing home and losing his battle with COVID-19. Not quite certain what was permissible at the time, the priest of eight years contacted the nursing home. After being redirected a number of times, he was told since the man was actively dying, he would be permitted to anoint him in person.

“When I arrived, it honestly felt like a scene out of a movie,” Father Roche said, “with everyone in their rooms, doors locked, nurses and employees in full PPE (personal protective equipment).”

He would be the first non-employee and non-resident inside the facility in a month.

“After being screened, I was suited up with an N95 mask, gown, and gloves,” he recalled. “There wasn’t an exposed place on my body. It was obvious that it had been a very stressful and challenging few weeks,” noting that nursing homes care for residents — not patients – who staff come to know well and with whom they develop a relationship.

Upon entering the room alone, Father noted, the parishioner immediately grabbed his gloved hand, and a brief, labored conversation ensued between priest and resident.

“I was able to administer Last Rites and pray with him,” he explained, “and it struck me how difficult it was for this poor man to spend his dying days alone and struggling to breathe. But I felt thankful for the grace to be able to share Christ’s love with him and administer the sacraments in his moment of need.”

When the man passed away a few days later, Father Roche considered himself privileged to celebrate his funeral Mass.

Noting he has spiritually ministered to many sick and dying before and after the poignant nursing home visit, Father remarked this first experience of anointing someone stricken with the coronavirus is unforgettable and a moment he will return to in prayer for the rest of his life.

“A lot of things can happen to us in this life,” Father Roche shared. “Almost anything can be taken away, but the grace of God is always available for those who ask for it. Even when (it seems) we are alone, God is present. Even when things seem bleak and dim, the light of Christ can be seen illuminating the darkness.”

Spiritually Hungry

Father Glenn also related that on several occasions he was called to anoint patients but was unable to have direct contact with them.

“Nobody but the doctors and nurses were allowed in the rooms,” Father remarked, “but on behalf of the Church I knew it was important to be united with these isolated patients in prayer.”

“It was very sad not to be able to enter the room, but I also trust that the power of prayer is not hindered by any barriers,” he offered.

Father Glenn also shared the encounter with a parishioner who himself contacted the priest for the sacraments of reconciliation, anointing of the sick, and Holy Communion while recovering from a severe respiratory illness.

“Although I experienced some hesitancy about venturing outside of the rectory, I knew I needed to be with this parishioner during his time of need and to bring some spiritual comfort in the midst of this struggle. There is such a need and hunger for these grace-filled rites and moments,” he concluded.