The Archdiocese of Boston has assembled groups of priests — living together in strategic locations close to hospitals— to administer the anointing of the sick to COVID-19 patients.
Father Tom Macdonald, vice-rector of St. John’s Seminary in Boston, is one of the priests to have volunteered for the assignment.
“It’s a wonderful experience of priestly fraternity to live in the house. It’s sort of like— I would imagine— living as a firefighter in a firehouse. We’re here, we get calls, we rush out, we come back,” he told CNA.
The volunteers live in dedicated houses with other priests whose sole assignment is to be available to administer anointing of the sick, the archdiocese said. The ministry began the weekend of April 18.
“This is what priests do…it’s an enormous privilege,” Macdonald said.
Suffolk County, where Boston is located, had about 9,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of April 24.
“We are grateful that our priests are able to visit with the seriously ill in hospitals who are suffering from the coronavirus and to be able to provide the Sacrament of the Sick,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said in a statement to CNA.
“This is especially comforting to families who are not currently permitted to visit loved ones in the hospital and who are being treated for coronavirus. Our priests consider this to be a blessing in their ministry. In addition we have received feedback that these visits have had a positive impact on hospital staff.”
The archdiocese trained some 80 priests in total to carry out the ministry, with 30 priests actively doing the anointings and the rest serving as backup.
The backup volunteers have been providing living space for the priests— such as empty rectories— as well as providing food and errands for the participating clergy.
Father Macdonald has been called to anoint several COVID-19 patients already, and each time the hospital staff has assisted him in donning and removing the necessary protective gear according to hospital’s protocols.
He said all the priests have been trained to minimize time spent in the patient’s room. The priest prays most of the ritual on the doorstep, he said.
The priest then enters the room to perform the actual anointing, which is done with a cotton swab, dipped in the holy oil, and administered on the patient’s foot.
Macdonald said he and his fellow priests are constantly “sharing notes” on their experiences at the hospitals, since each institution has slightly different protocols and equipment.
“It’s very hard being a priest and not being able to celebrate the sacraments for the people, so this opportunity is a great relief in a sense— to do what we were ordained to do,” he said.
“We teach the men at St. John’s [Seminary] that priests run into the burning building, not away from it.”
Father Michael Zimmerman, assistant vocation director for the seminary and another priest volunteer, told CNA that he hopes the word will spread throughout Boston about the availability of anointing for coronavirus patients.
Father Zimmerman started on the team last weekend, covering the Cambridge, Everett, and Mount Auburn hospitals in Boston. So far he has responded to one anointing call, and his fellow priest in the house where they are now living has responded to two.
“Once we’re there, the nurses and the medical staff are very appreciative to have us there,” he said.
He said he and his fellow priest— a religious— have developed a routine of prayer in their house, as well as eating meals together and celebrating Mass.
Father Zimmerman asked for prayers for the patients and the priests and medical staff ministering to them.
“We can’t save everyone— medicine can only do so much. To some degree we have to recognize that we’re not the masters of our own fate, and we have to put it in God’s hands,” he said.
“The medical staff is doing great work, but we also have to recognize that they can’t do everything, and that hopefully takes some pressure off of them, recognizing that this is in God’s hands.”