Ministering on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

Priests come face to face with coronavirus as they prepare the way forward for the sick and dying

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PROVIDENCE — Arriving in the early evening at Fatima Hospital, Father Richard Narciso — his anxiety level already raised due to the circumstances — listened intently as Gloria, the nurse assigned to guide him, detailed the procedures he would need to follow in order to mitigate his risk of falling prey to COVID-19, the same illness afflicting the patient he was here to anoint.
Although the pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Providence has eased the passing of countless sick and dying throughout his ministry in offering the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, he had never encountered such a tense visit to a patient on their deathbed.
He had received a call late that afternoon from the hospital asking that the woman’s daughter had requested — if possible — that their loved one receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
After being outfitted by the nurses with the same safety gear available for their use when treating COVID-19 patients, including a protective suit encapsulating a self-contained Powered Air Purifying Respirator unit, and reviewing the instructions in his mind on precisely how to enter and leave the room, he was led to the unit.
“Once I entered the unit, my knowledge and understanding of the severity and seriousness of this public health crisis was deepened ten-fold,” Father Narciso told Rhode Island Catholic.
He was taken aback at first by the unit full of health care workers covered from head to toe in gowns, gloves, shoe coverings, hair coverings, masks and face shields, all working in the midst of what looked like a scene from a science fiction film.
“Yet in the midst of all this, I can assure you that Christ himself was present to so many in need,” Father Narciso said.
Vested in the full armor of personal protective equipment, he hesitated at the door of the room for a moment.
Stepping through, his thoughts transformed from following the safety procedures required to enter the unsafe environment to the “Hymn of Praise” often sung during Mass.
He also thought about the host of angels and saints singing that hymn of praise around the throne of Grace — around the throne of God, as he embarked on his mission.
At that moment, as was the case that day for healthcare workers around the world, he too was standing face to face with the ravages of COVID-19.
With his double-gloved hands Father Narciso laid his palms upon the older woman’s head in prayer before anointing her forehead and hands with a cotton ball with Oil of the Sick.
He prayed that her eyes may have been opened to the presence of Christ in their midst and her heart may have burned with desire to see God face to face in the heavenly kingdom.
With that, his mind turned back to the instructions that the nurses outside the room had given him.
He carefully removed one pair of gloves, before opening the door and exiting the room.
He marveled at the caring and compassion expressed by the team of nurses for their patients, including Gloria, who guided his safety every step of the way.
“Even after the anointing, in the midst of all that she had to do for her patients, she continued to be the loving, caring and generous presence of the Risen Christ to me,” he said in awe.
His work in anointing the sick that day was not yet done, however.
Earlier, to keep a brother priest from also putting himself into harm’s way by risk of exposure to the coronavirus, Father Narciso volunteered to answer his call as well to anoint a hospitalized parishioner with the Oil of the Sick.
It is through the Church’s Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, through the ministry of the priest, that Jesus himself touches the sick to heal them from spiritual ailment — and sometimes even from physical ailment.
In the Bible, Jesus’ cures were signs of the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and through this sacrament of healing, Jesus reveals his plan to conquer sin and death by his own death and resurrection.
Father Narciso is one of many priests from across the Diocese of Providence who minister to the sick and dying in hospitals, nursing homes, palliative care and other facilities.

A Band of Chaplain Brothers

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded locally over the last three months, Father Albert Ranallo, coordinator for Pastoral Care for Health Facilities in the Diocese of Providence, has assembled a group of 17 priests who, in addition to their regular ministry to the sick and dying, will be positioned, with

additional training, to respond should another peak of cases develop which would overwhelm beds at hospitals and other care centers.
“We want to have designated priests deal with the COVID patients,” said Father Ranallo, whose responsibilities as coordinator include overseeing hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices and other care facilities.
Father Ranallo, pastor of St. Ann’s Church in Providence, also serves as director of Catholic Chaplaincy at Rhode Island and Fatima hospitals.
“Local pastors might start getting the calls, but they may not be able to go because of medical conditions or their age or any other reason,” he said.
To keep hospitals and their resources from being overtaxed should another spike in positive cases develop locally, some of the less severe cases may be diverted to alternative sites or field hospitals for treatment, while other patients facing an uncertain road to recovery may be sent to any of eight area hospice organizations for end-of-life care.
The priests are on a mission to ensure that all who are sick or dying are able to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
“We’re designating priests in the eventuality of those situations developing,” Father Ranallo said. “We know we’re still going to get called to visit the sick at home, so we have to gear up for that eventuality too.”
For these spiritual first responders, like their medical counterparts, the biggest challenge has been securing enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to mitigate to the greatest extent possible the health risk involved when a priest enters the room of a patient who could be infected with the novel coronavirus.
“Even if it’s non-COVID patients we still have to be careful of what we’re going to be exposed to in the home,” Father Ranallo said.
Starting with just one box of latex gloves and nine N95 masks to protect the group of priests volunteering for this ministry, Father Ranallo has worked to gather additional gowns, gloves and masks. He gathered the priests together online for a Zoom training led by a nurse from Hope Hospice on the proper methods for donning and doffing the gear.
“You have to be attentive to the medical staff,” he said, when priests go into facilities to anoint the sick and dying.
“You have to be very careful how you put on the PPE. They walk you through the protocol for putting on the PPE, what goes on first, second and third. You want to make sure it’s secured.”
When visiting a patient in the hospital in the earliest days of the pandemic, Father Ranallo first used a glove to anoint the forehead and palms of the sick with holy oil.
More recently he and other priests have begun to use a long cotton swab dipped into the oil to minimize the risk of spreading any potential infection.
There is so much for priests to keep in mind procedurally in order to protect themselves and others as they enter and leave a hospital, home or other facility when anointing the sick in the age of COVID-19 that it can take some time for them to fully reflect on each situation.
Father Ranallo recounted his experience during a recent visit to anoint a patient in the ICU at Rhode Island Hospital in this context.
“The patient was breathing very, very heavy. He wasn’t alert and he was suffering. You don’t have time to really process it because you’re not supposed to stay in the room that long,” he said.
“What you can do in the moment is to administer the sacrament, lifting up your heart and saying the prayers and anointing on the forehead and the hands, giving the apostolic blessing and then going to the door, where you have to follow the protocol,” for doffing, or removing, the protective equipment.
“You really don’t have time to process what you just did until later on and then you reflect on it. It’s a tough situation. You really see the virus up close. You’re confronting it with another person being a victim of it. It’s really heart-wrenching. Especially since the family cannot be around,” he added, noting how, pre-COVID-19, families were usually present with their loved ones when a priest visited to anoint the sick.
Over the past couple of months, the level of access that healthcare facilities have granted chaplains to the sick and dying has varied, with most bedside visits disallowed altogether at the height of the pandemic out of extreme caution to prevent the virus from spreading further among the general population.
Father Albert Marcello III was able to anoint Sister Mary Angelus, RSM, at her bedside before the beloved Sister of Mercy succumbed to COVID-19 last month.
Using a long Q-tip medical swab, he applied the holy oil in a sign of the cross while offering the prayers of absolution and apostolic pardon.
“She was already in her final hours and I was very fortunate that I was allowed in,” said Father Marcello, who serves as a Catholic chaplain at Rhode Island Hospital in addition to his ministry as a tribunal judge in the diocesan Marriage Tribunal Office.
“I knew Sister Angelus during her life. She touched a lot of lives and she really lived an extremely holy life. I felt very privileged to be able to offer her the final sacraments.”
Father Marcello gives strong credit to the nurses and healthcare staff at Miriam Hospital for ensuring the chaplains can carry out their ministry to the sick in as safe a manner as possible.
“I was well taken care of in that regard,” he said.
“We’ll try to get in as close physical proximity as we can to administer the sacraments according to what canon law allows. We do what our duty is. When we’re called we go.”
For Father David Thurber, his chaplaincy duty is one to God, but also to his country.
Father Thurber, who holds the rank of major in the Rhode Island National Guard’s 143rd Airlift Wing, is currently the only Catholic priest serving in the state’s Army or Air Guard.
With a large percentage of the state’s population identifying as Roman Catholic, having a Catholic chaplain readily available to support them in their mission is very important for the men and women serving.
“My job as a chaplain is to minister to the people who are on the front lines,” Father Thurber said of his mission.
For the last three months, that mission has been serving on the home front, staffing the COVID-19 drive-through centers established at local colleges and other areas to allow residents to be tested for the virus.
Although he is not conducting the testing himself personally, Father Thurber is onsite each day to provide spiritual support to those men and women of the Guard who are.
The guardsmen come from a variety of backgrounds and age groups and can quickly find the stress of the pandemic taking its toll on them.
“When they’re done with their mission, they go home to a wife, a husband, children, full-time college coursework — some students even with families at home — plus they have to do full shifts. So the stress level can be extremely high,” Father Thurber said.
With so much going on in their personal lives at the end of already long days staffing the testing centers as part of their Guard service, that stress can quickly compound.
“A lot of the work I do is counseling. It’s praying with people, it’s visiting with people, it’s letting people vent, it’s being there as a spiritual support. And they really need it,” he said.
“Having gone through the same training, I can really identify with a military way of life and that allows for that connection where they are really able to open up.”
Father Thurber, who also serves as the pastor of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish in Pawtucket, is onsite to provide counseling when the guardsmen seek it, and has also provided support via telephone to those who are dealing with a family member who has contracted the virus or is in quarantine themselves.
“It’s scary when they’re getting it, scary when their friends are getting it, scary when they have to quarantine,” he said.
In his role as a chaplain in the diocese, Father Thurber has anointed many sick and dying in hospice and hospital settings, as well as in their homes.
“I’m here to be a priest,” he said.
“I’m here to serve God’s people. So if somebody’s sick, if somebody’s in need, whether it’s men and women in uniform, whether it’s somebody dying of coronavirus, whether it’s somebody dying of other reasons — if there’s something I can do to help, then that’s what I’m there for.”

Spiritual Leadership Meaningful to Families in the Balance

Such spiritual leadership provided by Catholic priests is of the utmost importance to families struggling to contend with the passing of their loved ones.
When Mark Carlson, a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Parish in East Providence, wanted to have a priest anoint his 96-year-old aunt, where she lay dying in her nursing home in West Warwick in mid-May, he approached Father Jorge Rocha, the pastor, and Assistant Pastor Father Nathan Ricci to see if this might be possible.
“I was honored and touched that they would be willing to risk exposure to offer that comfort and aid,” Carlson told Rhode Island Catholic.
Father Ricci, who also serves as assistant chancellor for the Diocese of Providence, subsequently met Carlson outside the nursing facility where they both offered prayers before going in to limit their amount of exposure once inside.
“Father Ricci explained what was going to happen, that he was going to anoint her with oil, give her the apostolic pardon and pray for her,” Carlson said.
After Father Ricci performed the anointing, Carlson stayed on in his aunt’s room to spend some additional time with her.
She wasn’t conscious during the anointing, but at a later point in the visit, Carlson said his aunt reached out and grabbed his arm.
“I’d like to believe that she knew I was there, and she wasn’t alone. I think she also felt comfortable. She had been absolved of her earthly sins and God would be calling her home soon,” he said.
Likewise, Claire Swift, whose mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Vacari, received the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick from Father Narciso at Fatima Hospital, was grateful because she knew that was what her mother had wanted before she died.
She had never met Father Narciso before, but was amazed that he tracked her down a couple of days later to inform her over the phone that he had indeed anointed her mother to prepare her for her spiritual journey home.
“He was so nice. The fact that he went out of his way to reach me — I was so appreciative of that,” Swift told Rhode Island Catholic. “The nurses did tell me that someone went in, but I was really grateful that he got in touch with me. That was nice.”
Her mother, who had moved to an assisted living facility in Rhode Island last year to be closer to her daughter and other family members, had turned 94 just before she was admitted into the hospital as a COVID-19 patient on Easter Sunday.
Because of nursing home and assisted living policies which did not permit visitors to nursing facilities at the time, Claire was unable to visit with her mother from mid-March until the very end, when she was very near death in the hospital.
“It made it so painful that I had to leave her and to not be with her when she was in the hospital,” Swift said, with that forced separation for safety reasons being perhaps the cruelest aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eight days later a graveside service was held for Vacari from her beloved parish back in her native Stoneham, Massachusetts, where the family was raised.