With healthcare workers fighting to stop the spread of COVID-19, the ways that people cope with death have had to change. Since March, family members have not been allowed to visit loved ones in the hospital with COVID-19. If the patient dies, family and friends are often discouraged from hosting any kind of funeral or wake, and for Catholics, the pandemic has changed how they can practice a fundamental aspect of their faith: giving and receiving the last rites (it’s also changed plenty for funeral directors).
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Anointing of the Sick is one of the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments. When a believer is preparing for surgery or becomes fatally ill, they can request a priest to perform their last rites in the hospital.
“In the Church’s Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, through the ministry of the priest, it is Jesus who touches the sick to heal them from sin—and sometimes even from physical ailment,” the USCCB wrote on its website. “His cures were signs of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The core message of his healing tells us of his plan to conquer sin and death by his dying and rising.”
The rites are actually three sacraments combined. First, the believer gives their final confession, and the priest forgives them for their sins. Then, they are anointed by the priest with holy water. Finally, the priest performs the Eucharist, or the remembrance of the body and blood of Christ.
“When the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given, the hoped-for effect is that, if it be God’s will, the person be physically healed of illness,” the USCCB explains. “But even if there is no physical healing, the primary effect of the Sacrament is a spiritual healing by which the sick person receives the Holy Spirit’s gift of peace and courage to deal with the difficulties that accompany serious illness or the frailty of old age.”
Of course, priests have to break the social distancing protocol to perform the last rites, and some have died after contracting the virus while comforting those who are already sick. Many hospitals will not allow priests to enter the hospital rooms of COVID-19 patients, even if it looks like they are going to die. Those who can enter have had to learn to smile with their eyes. The funeral rites of Muslims have also been affected by the pandemic.
Not everybody agrees with restrictions on last rites. As one Republican Utah lawmaker told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, “Chaplains dodged bullets on the battlefields to give last rites to fallen soldiers.”
Many priests have worked with hospitals to come up with creative solutions. For example, hospitals in Austin allow clergy to stand outside a hospital room window and talk with patients over the phone. Other hospitals allow patients to at least FaceTime with their priests to have their last rites performed. However, these solutions do not let priests physically anoint patients—which is the aspect of the sacraments that Catholics believe acts as a vehicle for the Holy Spirit.
Or as the Washington Post reported about Rev. Michael Lewis in El Paso, he “adapts the rituals to circumstance, uttering farewell prayers from a distance, sometimes from behind glass or the doorway of a hospital room, to represent the families who cannot be there to see their loved ones.”
While the Vatican would prefer priests be allowed to anoint using a Q-tip or cotton ball, the Austin-American Statesman reported that the Catholic Church says “an act of perfect contrition, a prayer expressing remorse for sins and an intention to make a confession to a priest if they recover” is “sufficient to receive God’s forgiving grace.”
Some parts of the U.S. (and in Italy) have made accommodations for the Catholic faith. The New York Times reported that in Boston—where there is a significant Catholic population—archbishop Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley created a task force of 21 priests trained to “safely anoint” COVID-19 patients.
The 21 trained priests were performing the last rites for sometimes five COVID-19 patients a day during Boston’s peak of the pandemic.
Rev. Francis Zlotkowski told the Statesman that during the pandemic, he has comforted relatives who can’t physically be with their dying loved one with the Christian faith’s primary universal truth: “God overcomes all distances. God is still present even if you can’t be.”
As the pandemic rages on, the clergy is still very much in demand. As Chad Towner, the CEO of St. Joseph Health System, told Kaiser in January for a story about how hospitals are dealing with more and more deaths, “We recently had four deaths in one afternoon. A priest approached me to say he’d been asked to provide last rites to three patients in one hour.”
The Catholic Church also has had to adjust other rituals. For Ash Wednesday, the Vatican advised priests to sprinkle the ashes on the heads of people instead of rubbing them on their foreheads.