Cadre of Chicago-area priests trained to minister to dying coronavirus patients

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CHICAGO — He had done it hundreds of times, but this time was different.

The Rev. Matt O’Donnell, pastor of St. Columbanus in Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood, stepped inside the hospital room to perform last rites on a dying COVID-19 patient. But there was no family — only O’Donnell, the patient and a nurse. The patient was unresponsive.

“I think that for individuals and families, it really gives the sense of comfort and peace to know in this moment they’re not alone,” O’Donnell said. “When the anointing of the sick is celebrated, the church is present to that person at that moment.”

His clerical attire was covered by a sterile jumpsuit, plastic glasses, a face mask, hair net, shoe coverings and plastic gloves.

But most of the rituals were the same: the sign of the cross, prayer, a scripture reading, the anointing of the oil on the person’s forehead and hands, more prayer and a final blessing.

He wasn’t in the patient’s room long. He estimates five minutes.

That was a Wednesday in the middle of March. One day earlier, he just learned he’d been assigned to an archdiocese response team designated to minister to COVID-19 patients who are in imminent danger of death.

As the medical crisis deepened, religious leaders were devising ways to attend to those facing death. To ensure priests can minister to the sick and dying, the archdiocese created the 24-man response team.

“I think it is Cardinal (Blase) Cupich’s commitment to making sure that to people who are in a very vulnerable state of their life that they can be shown that they are not alone,” O’Donnell said.

Ordinarily, family members would contact their local parish to have what’s often known as last rites performed. Now, when a local parish is contacted, the parish must then notify the archdiocese. And from there, a priest from the team will be sent to carry out the sacrament, formally called the anointing of the sick.

When trying to put together the group two weeks ago, the archdiocese asked priests who were under age 60 with no chronic illness to volunteer. The archdiocese, in consultation with medical professionals, gave the priests a 2 1/2-hour training on the proper protocols and supplied them with protective equipment.

“We’re going to be the first responders on the spiritual side for Catholics in Cook and Lake County,” said the Rev. Manuel Dorantes, the 36-year-old pastor at St. Mary of the Lake in Buena Park. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be the 24 of us on the front lines.”

But performing the anointing of the sick is especially hard now, when many hospitals have banned visitors.

Loyola University Medical Center’s current visitor policy prohibits outside visitors, including clergy, according to Loyola spokesman Chris Vicik. Loyola does, however, have an internal team of chaplains for patients and staff at Loyola, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and MacNeal Hospital.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital has encouraged outside clergy to contact patients by phone or video, said Mark Bradley, manager of pastoral services at Northwestern.

But the hospital has made “compassionate exceptions,” he said, including family members asking for the “Catholic anointing of the sick” for their loved ones.

“We have facilitated many of those in the last few weeks,” Bradley said.

“In our Catholic tradition, to have the last rites is a privilege and a deep desire for a person to make their peace with God before they meet God,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of the archdiocese.

Perry said there are some drawbacks for priests who end up having to speak to patients on the phone.

“We do believe the sacrament is very, very, very important when a person is dying, and they have a right to it,” he said. “But this particular virus is no respecter of religion, that’s for sure. It’s just a huge nightmare.”

Other faiths with rituals or sacraments performed when someone is dying also are dealing with similar strictures.

In Judaism, there is a series of prayers that are commonly recited before someone dies, said Rabbi Baruch Epstein with Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois. It is tradition to recite Viduy prayers, which are a form of confessional, and to recite Scriptures that are a declaration of faith.

The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago has not created a designated response team, but issued directives to its 58 parishes on how pastors should handle visitations. Pastoral visits could only be performed for end-of-life circumstances, according to a metropolis spokesman.

But with many hospitals banning visitors altogether, some clergy are forced to perform the end of life rituals virtually.

Two weeks ago, the Rev. Theodore Poteres, pastor of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Merrillville, Ind., received a call that one of his parishioners, a woman in her 80s, tested positive for COVID-19 and was likely to die.

As the woman lay in bed on a ventilator, a nurse placed a phone to her ear as Poteres said a prayer.

Within minutes of the prayer, the woman was taken off the ventilator and died, Poteres said.

“It was difficult for me, I never had to do anything like that before,” Poteres said. “But we were still able to bring the love of the church to the patient and the family.”

When the 33-year-old O’Donnell first received the call to minister to a dying COVID-19 patient at the University of Chicago Medical Center, he was shocked.

“It just made it more real. It’s not just something I was reading about in the news, but something I was experiencing for myself,” he said.

O’Donnell said he understands the risk of ministering to COVID-19 patients, but that the faithful need priests more than ever.

“I think that the risk has been explained to us, but all of us realize this is what our priesthood is meant to be about,” he said. “It’s to bring Christ to people and to bring a sense of hope to people might otherwise be in a place of despair.”


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