A group of Catholic priests has anointed about 1,100 extremely ill or dying COVID-19 patients in eastern Massachusetts, and officials from the Archdioceses of Boston said none of these priests have contracted the virus.
Nearly 30 priests in the archdiocese have visited hospitals and long-term healthcare facilities during the pandemic to anoint the sick, one of the church’s seven sacraments.
“For Catholics, the Chaplin isn’t just a visitor, he’s a part of the critical care team,” said MC Sullivan, the chief health care ethicist for the archdiocese. “Having the priest at the bedside brings comfort to the patient and reassurance to the patient’s family that they are in good care.”
Sullivan, who oversees the program, said each priest gears up in the same personal protective equipment medical workers and hospital staff wear during their shifts.
They say a special prayer outside the patient’s room, and go inside only to anoint them with a blessed oil using a cotton swab.
“Those who were able to react were grateful and very happy to see the priests,” she said. “It gives them a sense of peace and comfort to see someone important in their lives when their families can’t be there.”
Not all of the COVID-19 patients who received the sacrament have died. But Sullivan said the archdioceses has received copies of death notices and obituaries that thank the priests for these visits.
Sullivan said the priests have gone to nearly all of the 45 hospitals that are in the archdiocese’s coverage area.
Boston-area hospitals have been the busiest by far, Sullivan said. When the priests were called to anoint one or two patients during the pandemic’s surge, they would often end up anointing a half dozen or a dozen patients in one visit.
“It was a frantically busy pace for them,” she said.
The priests even give special blessings to the healthcare workers they meet while anointing the sick. At the very first anointing, after the priest thanked the healthcare workers for helping him with his PPE, they asked him to say a prayer for them and their colleagues.
“When he came out, 25 staff members had assembled for that blessing...” Sullivan said. “Having the priests there gives hospital staff a sense of security and solidarity.”
The priests go home to rectories shared only with other priests in the program when they are done making their rounds for the day. They follow strict quarantine guidelines and have their groceries and laundry left outside by volunteers.
Fewer than a dozen priests are still anointing these patients as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations decreases in the state. But Sullivan said the priests will be ready if that starts to change.
“If we need to increase that number we will, because our goal is to serve the COVID-19 patients who need the sacrament of the sick,” she said.