Priests Volunteer To Care for Patients
21 on call to bring sacrament of the sick to those with COVID-19
By Margarita Mendoza, El Observador Editor
April 23, 2020
Caring for the sick has always been part of the priestly ministry, but it becomes difficult during a pandemic.
The Diocese of Rockford has assigned 21 priests —at least two in each of its seven deaneries — to attend to people who are sick or dying as consequence of COVID-19. 
“I am deeply grateful to them for undertaking this pastoral service to those who are afflicted with the virus,” wrote Bishop David Malloy in a letter sent to all the priests of the Rockford Diocese in late March.
The volunteer priests are designated “Chaplains of Coronavirus according to the Catholic Encyclopedia,” said Father Ricardo Hernandez, parochial vicar at St. Bernadette Parish in Rockford, and one of the volunteers.
The on-call priests are  permited to administer the sacrament of the sick to patients with confirmed COVID-19. 
To be selected for the task, the priests have to be younger than 60 and have no comorbidity conditions, such as a chronic illness like hypertension and diabetes, among others.
In the Rockford Deanery, three priests received training at Mercy Health, OSF Saint Anthony and SwedishAmerican hospitals in Rockford. They are Father Hernandez; Father Sean Grismer, parochial vicar at St. Bridget in Loves Park and Father Pierre Polycarpe, assigned chaplain at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford
As part of the safety protocols in place, “hospitals know how many people are infected and, if possible, the name is given to us to avoid infections,” said Father Hernandez. 
Furthermore, “we were taught how to wear the ‘bunny suit’ ” — the name hospital employees have given to the white protective gear to be worn at the hospital when they are with coronavirus patients. 
The priests also learned “disinfection procedures for the special attire,” and  received a plastic helmet “we can use in case we have to assist someone in a home or nursing home,” said Father Hernandez. 
 “We cannot have direct contact with the patient. We can’t touch him with our fingers. If we anoint him, we must do it with cotton and then burn it,” said Father Hernandez.
Other chaplains of coronavirus who have not received extended training are following  recommendations the Rockford Diocese has  adopted from the Archdiocese of Chicago. 
“We are advised not to bring our prayer book,” Father Hernandez explained. “Instead we print the prayers, and after we visit the ill, we should burn it with the cotton and the gloves we used,” said Father Juan Arciniegas parochial vicar at SS. Peter and Paul in Cary in the McHenry Deanery. Another way to be protected, “is using a (plastic) poncho,” along with gloves and mask, he said.
Father Ruben Herrera, pastor of St. Patrick in Rochelle in the DeKalb Deanery, said that he had not “been called for any training yet.” But, he says he uses common sense to be protected.
The diocese said that in case of ministering the sacrament of the sick to someone with a confirmed case of the COVID-19 in a hospital or healthcare facility, the facility’s guidelines for visitors are to be followed. All other restrictions from the facility must also be observed, including wearing protective garments and following protective measures.
“Hospitals are not allowing us to go into patients’ rooms to anoint them,” said Father Timothy Mulcahey, pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Aurora. “We are praying as much as we can from outside their rooms.”
In one case, Father Mulcahey explained, he was called in the middle of the night.
“They told me not to come to the hospital. So, I prayed with him over the phone — from my bed to his bed. I don’t know if the person could hear me, if he was conscious. But his family members were also connected on the call and they prayed with me,” said Father Mulcahey.
That is the reason Father Mulcahey suggests that someone who is sick with coronavirus should ask soon for spiritual help. 
“Call us sooner rather than later, if that’s possible,” he said. 
Most likely the special chaplains will not be able to see anyone besides the medical personnel if the patient is in a hospital. If the patient is at home, the priest may be able to bless him or her at the garage or outside of the house.
Father Mulcahey attended a funeral where “just 10 people (were) allowed to be in the funeral home and cemetery,” he said. Other family members were allowed to participate at a distance, such as from the parking lot without getting out of their cars. 
One of the mourners broadcast the service live so the family could watch.
Despite the obstacles and risks, “There is a principle that the Church cannot neglect any person, sick or dying”, said Father Arciniegas, and “I’m willing to serve.”
To request a blessing from a coronavirus chaplain, call your parish office.


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