Priests say comforting souls is part of their healing ministry – Arkansas Catholic

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Hospital chaplains continue to serve patients during COVID-19 pandemic, emotional toll

Posted: November 26, 2021

courtesy of Fr. Beni Wego, SVD

Bro. Beni Wego, SVD, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) before visiting patients in the emergency room at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Louisiana in April 2020. Bro. Wego spent six years there as a chaplain before taking on the same role at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro in September 2020.

Catholic Health Care Series, Part 3 of 3

Father Warren Harvey entered the bedroom of a young Hispanic woman at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to give the sacrament of the last rites. A few family members were allowed into the hospital at that time, but not the room.

“I went into the room on my own, and they stood outside, looking out the window, and they wanted so badly to be there, and just to be nearby, close. And it was very difficult for me, ”said Father Harvey, chaplain at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, Arkansas Catholic, calling the emotional toll“ enormous ”.

“You are the pseudo-parent not only of proximity but just from the point of view of the accompaniment of the patient. … They are sick and they are looking at you. And, of course, you wear gloves, a face mask, and a head covering, and you can touch them, but that’s with a glove. And I would often think because they have nothing, as far as protection (PPE) is concerned, and often think about what it must be like not being able to feel the real touch of another human being, a caregiver. “

“I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, ‘Oh my God.’ And, of course, in a political arena, playing political ball with it all, is it real or isn’t it real? And yet I see real people walking into the hospital with ventilators. “

Three Catholic priests are currently working as chaplains in Catholic hospitals in the state. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they provided spiritual and emotional healing to patients and staff.

In the same boat

A chaplain is a healthcare worker responsible for the emotional and spiritual well-being of a patient, whether religious or not. Father George Sanders, pastor of St. John’s Church in Hot Springs and chaplain for eight years, said it was not their job to promote the Catholic faith but to “meet them where they are.”

“We can touch the soul, which is an integral part of the healing process,” said Father Sanders, who serves at CHI St. Vincent in Hot Springs.

Most assumed COVID-19 wouldn’t be a big deal, Father Sanders said. But soon, “a third of the hospital was locked in COVID mode. “

At the start of 2020, these were mainly elderly people with the virus. It changed this summer.

“This time, with delta (variant), there were no elderly people. I’ve seen people my age and under, 30 and 40, fight for their lives, ”he said.

Early on, Father Harvey, a night-time emergency nurse for 12 years before his priestly ministry, said the severity of the pandemic had struck home. His sister, Ida, died of COVID-19 on April 18, 2020. He then lost another sister, Shirley, on January 9 to COVID-19.

“I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, ‘Oh my God.’ And, of course, in a political arena, playing political ball with it all, is it real or isn’t it real? And yet I see real people walking into the hospital with ventilators, ” Father Harvey said.

He added that the COVID wings were a surprising sight, as patients are placed on their stomachs to allow more oxygen to reach the lungs.

“We had passed by, all the doors were closed and you see people lying on their stomachs. … It was a harsh reality like this, it is something very different from what we have ever experienced before.

Seeing all faiths or people from different walks of life come together to fight a common threat inspired Father Benignus “Beni” Wego, SVD, chaplain at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro.

“We learn to discover ourselves or rediscover ourselves by approaching people who walk a different path of faith,” said Father Wego.

It was no longer just the patients who were in desperate need of healing.

“Many times we would find (the staff) crying because they were doing all they could for this person and yet they died,” said Father Sanders.

He and Father Harvey often told health workers the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of ​​Galilee while the disciples feared for their lives in the rocking boat.

“Jesus is in there is with us, in the midst of the storm, this COVID pandemic. He’s in there with us. This is what our presence says and reassures them, ”said Father Harvey. “We do not walk around saying ‘I am Jesus’, but you are, for myself as a priest, ‘in persona Christi’ (in the person of Christ). So just walking around the department is reassuring and smiling and saying, “How are you; We pray for you. ‘”

Video cats and rosaries

When visitors were prohibited from entering hospitals, chaplains often acted as mediators.

“It was extremely difficult. I was with a man once whose wife had a heart attack. She’s in the emergency room and he couldn’t get in. These are heartbreaking things, ”said Father Sanders, adding that he had stayed with the woman, who had survived. “There was nothing to fight this demon with, especially at the start of this pandemic. … It is this ignorance and the inability to be next to your loved one that goes through a tragic trauma alone. We are social people; God made us that way. Especially in those moments of life, if our time to leave this life is near, we need our families. “

Prior to coming to St. Bernards as a chaplain in September 2020, Father Wego spent six years as a chaplain at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Louisiana, considered at one point to be a “hot spot.”

“I describe it as a war zone or something. It was the first time in my life that I found myself in this situation, ”said Father Wego, who spent more than 20 years as a chaplain.

He administered the anointing of the sick and the last rites to the patients outside the room and video chatted with the families so that everyone could pray together. He often led prayer services in the hospital parking lot. If a patient was still conscious, a nurse would hold the phone to his ear and Father Wego would pray with them.

“They have so much help, strength, encouragement, and joy at having received the sacrament. Myself, as a priest, it is a joyful time in my life. It’s amazing, it’s very critical, but it’s Jesus who can come to you, ”he said.

Father Wego continued to carry out his ministry from a distance to protect all the non-COVID patients he regularly visits and the protection of the sisters at Holy Angels Convent, where he is also chaplain.

“We never want to have the COVID virus. But what I saw is that the patients still have hope, ”said Father Wego.

Father Harvey made and sent 50 “last rites” kits to diocesan priests for use with COVID-19 patients, which included an oil-soaked cotton ball and copies of prayers that could be cremated for health purposes.

“I’ll leave people a rosary, a cheap little rosary, but to them it’s like a diamond. They’re like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ It is this symbol of our faith. To a Catholic and a Rosary, it just means something, ”said Father Harvey.

Hope and mercy

Before the vaccine was available, Father Sanders said his healthy older friend, who was still hiking and canoeing at 70, had died from the virus.

“Before the vaccine, this good man, this holy man, this good Catholic, lost his battle with COVID,” he said.

A young friend who determined that the vaccine was a “hoax” died in intensive care. While he said that each person must make their own medical decisions, he knew of at least one non-COVID patient who died because access to health care was limited due to COVID patients filling the hospital.

“There is so much misinformation that has led to some thought or understanding that is probably unfounded,” said Father Sanders, citing a popular quote from Robert A. Heinlein: “You can influence a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices faster than you can logically convince a single man.

Father Harvey said his first response is always mercy whether or not a person is vaccinated.

“Jesus always cared about him before he healed. And they often say, “His heart was moved with pity. And then he would do something about it, ”he said. “So I think that’s a very important part of our ministry, is that we can, and we say first, ‘I care.’ And realizing that being the only Catholic priest in a Catholic hospital, I represent my Church.

What continues to inspire Father Sanders is the resilience of his colleagues. He compared the nurses to Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry his cross, sitting with loved ones who had no family around them.

“I saw time and time again that the nurses in this room would not let this person go through this life alone. … They saw this dignity; they saw Christ, ”said Father Sanders.

Father Wego said the pandemic has enabled him to bring his priestly ministry to those who are suffering.

“I read the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Happy are you.’ His blessings always endure, whether we are in good times or bad. This is very important because the result does not come from us; it is from Jesus. He has promised us blessings. I believe that no power in this world will prevent blessings, ”said Father Wego. “I am always very optimistic for the future because the faith is there; it’s alive.”

Read the series on Catholic health care

Part 1: Catholic health care will never be the same after COVID

Part 2: Endurance, faith to help hospital staff get through the pandemic


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