Only a few days ago, on Palm Sunday, we heard the harrowing account in Matthew’s Gospel of the Passion of Our Lord, during which the haunting words of desperation are uttered by a crucified and dying Jesus on the Cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” At this time of seemingly endless reports of contagion and death caused by the COVID19 pandemic, and when the whole of society is confined to home, our hospital chaplains and frontline health-workers could be forgiven for feeling forsaken in their hour of need. But they are cooperating in God’s work and He is with our chaplains and health-workers now, He is with us, He is with the sick and with the dying.
Care of the sick – the Christian ministry of healing
The care of the sick is an essential part of the life of the Church as it participates in the ministry of Jesus who treated the sick with empathy and compassion. Throughout the gospels there are many incidents recorded where Jesus reaches out to those who are suffering to bring them healing and strength. This Christian ministry of healing is mediated through many people including priests and religious. That ministry is often seen and felt in the work of healthcare professionals and workers such as doctors, nurses and carers who, in their approach to their role, tend not just to the body but also to the spirit of their patients.
Hospital Chaplaincy in the COVID-19 Context
During this time of crisis surrounding COVID-19 our approach to ministry with the sick has had to change in line with best practice and in a combined effort to slow the spread of the disease. New ways of thinking and practicing are required. In such trying circumstances, our ordained and non-ordained hospital chaplains, like all their colleagues in healthcare, are providing incredible innovation in their efforts to support patients, staff and families.
As well as ministering directly with patients, where it is safe and possible to do so, chaplains are often the only persons other than doctors and nurses who can be with people suffering from COVID-19 and are providing an invaluable service in comforting and reassuring them. Healthcare chaplains are even more essential now during this time of unprecedented stress and anxiety. They are also helping to provide a link between the patient and their families, assisting them to remain in contact through every available means.
Supporting and caring for staff, always an important part of a chaplain’s ministry, has taken on special significance in these times. To help their ministry with patients, staff and families, many chaplaincy teams across the island provide a phone-in service for a chat, for support or for prayer. Some teams have also produced specially tailored prayer leaflets for this purpose.
Parish Ministry in a Public Health Crisis
The Sacrament of the Sick and the other sacraments are just one aspect of the Church’s witness and ministry. Currently every strategy that reduces the spread of the virus and protects the vulnerable is an act of charity to our neighbour. An important principle in the restrictions surrounding COVID-19 is providing as much pastoral care as possible by telephone, or via websites and social media. Priests, religious, deacons and non-ordained pastoral assistants working in parishes have had to adapt to new ways of ministering to people at this time. We on the Council for Healthcare commend them for all their efforts and wish to assure them that their work is very effective and is greatly appreciated by those in their care.
Every effort is being made to assure people that ministry from a distance is not the absence of ministry and thankfully, due to the developments in communications technology, there are many ways to keep in touch with people. In supporting, the sick, their families, the dying, the bereaved and all those who are anxious, or lonely, the ordained and the non-ordained minister in the parish setting plays a crucial role in the spiritual wellbeing of parishioners. This can be done in prayer, in assisting parishioners with acts of perfect contrition, in explaining spiritual communion and in offering the Eucharist for them.
All priests, religious, deacons, healthcare chaplains and non-ordained ministers are asked to follow closely the guidance outlined by their own bishop in all matters relating to ministry at this time and also to adhere to the guidelines issued on a regular basis by the governments of both jurisdictions on the island, the HSE and the Department of Health.
Prayer for Healthcare Workers
The Council for Healthcare encourages people to pray the following prayer at this time for Healthcare workers:
Loving God, we place into your care all our doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. Give them courage of heart and strength of mind & body. Keep them safe from harm. May they know our deep gratitude for all they are doing to heal and help those affected by coronavirus. God of all consolation, may they know your protection and peace. Bless them in these challenging days and bless their families. Amen. (kandle.ie)
In the words of Basil Hume, the late Archbishop of Westminster, “The great gift of Easter is HOPE – Christian hope which makes us have that confidence in God, in his ultimate triumph, and in his goodness and love, which nothing can shake” Together, and with our unwavering faith in God, we will overcome this present challenge and appreciate even more keenly, as we approach the Easter Season, the power of Christ’s resurrection to bring new life, healing and hope to all.
Bishop Michael Router is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Armagh and chair of the Council for Healthcare of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference