This whole COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of mixed feelings for many people, not only on the political and social levels, but also on personal, psychological, and spiritual ones as well. As a priest who has ministered to many who have lost loved ones, who have been sick, overwhelmed, struggling with fears, and now myself, tested positive and currently self-isolating for the safety of all, I can say that I have seen many perspectives that have been involved with this pandemic.
As a priest, I often get many complaints from people who think that this pandemic or virus is a politically-motivated sham, overly-exaggerated and blown up, and the current safety protocols and practices are deemed to be too much. I have seen people who go to local stores without their masks on, coughing like crazy, but demanded that it is their constitutional right not to be forced. At those moments, to be honest with you, I find myself hesitantly moving away from those people, trying to keep myself safe since I have three parishes and many people’s well beings that are entrusted to me, and I got to keep them safe. I have been called both a coward and Nazi when I try to enforce the current pandemic protocols at our three parishes to keep everyone safe. These people, even though do not have to wear their masks, I believe that they are lacking true charity and consideration for others. Perhaps this whole pandemic could have somewhat blown up by the media, but there are actually people who are suffering from it each and every day. What we can all do on our part, even though seems to be an inconvenience at times, can help others who are not well (oftentimes from the problems, fears, and pains that we cannot see).
I know you must have seen people who have lost their jobs because of this pandemic’s financial fallout. We have known people who are struggling because of cutbacks. Even though it is easy to stay on our throne to blame others, it is very important that we personally make the move to care for and lift up those who are suffering. Too many times, we like to point out problems and talk about things that really do not matter, but too little of us have chosen to step outside of our bounds to actually take a moment to care, understand, have empathy and compassion for those who are struggling. Financial bailouts will only fix immediate, secularistic, and financial problems, but to be able to care is the greatest gift that we can give to one another… even though it might not cost much, it moves hearts because we give ourselves to those who are in front of us.
As a priest, I have ministered to people who are really physically and financially suffering from this virus. At times, I have to listen to phone calls late at night, early in the morning, and on the weekend because people just need someone to listen to them. Many of them are not Catholics, but they just need someone to listen, hear their pains and sufferings, and give some genuine empathy! I have learned that there is little that I can do to help people. Even though there were times that we could help some, not everyone’s problems can be solved or should be solved, for at times, they just like someone to be present to them, to pray with them, and to say that they exist, loved, and are not alone.
Also, having to go to the hospital to give the Last Rites to those who are in grave danger or are dying from this pandemic really gives the first-hand experience that this is not something to be joked about! Having to learn how to be patient in waiting for clearance, rejected if the person is not in immediate danger, and learning to be firm and push our way through the hospital, hospice, or nursing home bureaucracies to make sure someone who was dying is not alone and could receive the sacramental graces needed was a great set of lessons in themselves.
As priests, each and every sick call or request that we receive is a personal and hard choice that we have to make! We know that constantly being exposed to sick people, and especially people who are COVID-19 positive, put us at risk and weaken our immune system. However, just like first responders who care for the physical well being of those who are in need, we try our best to be available to those who are in need of us, too. Much more than a job, this is our vocation and calling as spiritual fathers in the faith, and there is really no vacation, break, time-off, or easy way to stop living out our fatherhood. It is not easy, and there were times when I was leery, but the mounting requests of people needing priests really gave us little choices. We, simply, cannot abandon people who are in need of God and the Church (through her ministers)!
I remembered a particular incident that really made me cry while watching the news on television… it was showing people dying with COVID-19, all alone and separated from their loved ones. I cried and cried really hard when I saw that! It has always been my personal belief that no one should die alone. As a matter of fact, when I got the vaccine on January 8, it was to make sure that I do my best to keep myself safe and healthy, available and able to be present to those who are in need. Perhaps it is one of life’s irony, but I was called to give the Last Rites to a Catholic at a nursing home. This one nursing home required me to take a rapid test, and even though I did not feel, possess, or manifest any symptoms, I was tested positive. It broke my heart when I could not come in to see the person. I fervently and humbly asked if I could stand outside of the person’s windows to read and give most parts of the Last Rites if possible. I was able to do the prayers of commendation, absolution of sins, and the apostolic pardon, but was not able to give the anointing of the sick because I was not allowed in the facility after the positive test. I cried because I felt like I failed, but I stood by the room’s windows, commending the person’s soul to the Almighty. I have tried…
Now I am in quarantine. When the statement was released and read, a lot of priests and people called me to ask all the usual questions of where, when, how, and what happened. Some people really were compassionate and offered help when I am in quarantine, others treated me like I am somehow a stigma or irresponsible person. I got tired of answering questions, as I have told many, “I am exposed every time I have to personally choose to see the sick who are in need of a priest.” Trust me, I have tried my best to keep myself safe because I know there are many people in my own three parishes who are not well, overwhelmed with despair and fear, and there are many more who are in need of priests.
All the (repeated, same type of questions of) doubtful and judgmental scrutinies helped me to somewhat understand what it must be like to be to be mistrusted and treated as a stigma. Even though my situation is not as bad as lepers, ill, or outcasted people in Jesus‘ own time, it must be a sad and lonely life to have to be looked down on, questioned, and avoided because something was wrong with them. The people who are fearful now get more fearful, thinking somehow I have failed to be safe. Others, in their nosey and inquisitive minds, want to know every detail as if they are entitled — like I am on trial. Those who have rarely talked or communicated with me, all of a sudden became interested. While some are really caring and offered help, others have been less than kind, somehow thinking that I should be ashamed of doing something wrong.
Nevertheless, in this whole thing, God is trying to teach me that I am not in control. Just as I have received the needed lesson from my recent annual canonical retreat, I am called and only able to accept what He has given me in the present moment. The simplest and greatest love that you and I can give to the Lord is to embrace His will and to live what He has given us in the present moment. Even though I try my best, each and every personal choice of charity, to live out my priesthood and vocation as a spiritual father is a decision and exposure I have to risk. I will continue to keep myself safe, hopefully, this vaccine will help, too, but I want you to know that this COVID-19 pandemic has affected many people in many different ways, even in ways that we cannot see. Therefore, let us not quickly come to a judgment or dismissal because we have not seen its effects on us personally. Nonetheless, we cannot be overwhelmed and eaten alive by fear and going down the path of hopelessness and despair! We can only do the best that we can to keep everyone safe, do the right thing, but also at each and every moment, to personally choose and make decisions to trust, love, and give ourselves genuinely and completely to God and our brothers and sisters.