Father John Wilson answered a call to bring prayer and the sacraments to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic.
Father Wilson, a parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s parish in Yorktown Heights, is one of five priests in the Hudson Valley who have volunteered to live in isolation and assist chaplains and parish priests in bringing pastoral care to the sick in hospitals, nursing home residents and the homebound.
“It’s where the need is,” Father Wilson, 35, told CNY. “The sacraments are God’s channels of grace.”
“We’re doing the best we can to meet the needs of people in different circumstances. When I’m in a room with someone, it’s going to be what the person is in need of.”
Auxiliary Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, episcopal vicar of Hudson Valley, for Dutchess, Ulster, Sullivan and Orange counties, initially asked for priests interested in volunteering for pastoral care in Hudson Valley during the pandemic, and 25 priests responded.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Bishop Colacicco of the large number of volunteers. “The guys wanted to be able to help. It’s part of being a priest. The guys were eager to do this.”
Three archdiocese priests—Father Wilson; Father Michael Connolly, parochial vicar of St. Columba’s in Hopewell Junction; Father Louis Masi, parochial vicar of St. Mary Mother of the Church in Fishkill—and two Franciscan Friars of the Renewal—Father Antonio Diez de Medina, C.F.R., and Father Giuseppe Siniscalchi, C.F.R.—were selected.
“The primary goal for us is to ensure those who are sick and dying and unable to be visited in hospitals and nursing homes are able to receive Christ and know that Christ has not abandoned them either,” said Father Masi, 29.
John Schultz is director of health care chaplaincy apostolate for ArchCare, the continuing care community of the archdiocese. He trained priests for their mission and said he wants to “ensure all Catholic patients in need have access to skilled and compassionate sacramental and spiritual care.”
“They’ve been an immense help,” said Schultz of the priests who volunteered. “They’re doing a lot of great work.”
Schultz’s training for the priests touched on four areas: safety and prevention by wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a face mask, face shield, gown and gloves; sacramental and spiritual care in a COVID-19 environment; a safe rectory environment; and participation in a Zoom conference every two weeks with other priests and chaplains for community support.
ArchCare provides personal protective equipment for home visits, and hospitals and nursing homes will provide priests with safety gear when they enter the facility. A priest will leave his parish rectory or community setting to live in isolation in his new role. Father Connolly and Father Masi are living in an unoccupied retreat house, and Father Wilson is residing in the former rectory at St. Patrick’s in Yorktown.
Schultz said the Zoom conference is important for priests as they work in a highly stressful work environment during the pandemic.
“It’s absolutely critical,” he said. “Spiritual care is part of the overall care in hospitals and nursing homes, and priests provide this care in so many ways. It’s important to provide this care to our own chaplains and priests as community support. It offers the opportunity for support, prayer and share what’s going on.”
Priests and chaplains are still facing resistance to their visits as hospitals and nursing homes have been closed to visitors during the pandemic, leaving priests to communicate with some hospital patients and nursing home residents by phone.
If a priest is able to visit a hospital or nursing home, his temperature is checked as he enters and he is provided personal protective equipment. During their visits, priests also are available to meet with health care workers.
“They’re very happy to see me,’’ said Father Wilson of the health care professionals. “It brings comfort to the staff. They love their patients, too. They’re having a hard time. People they’ve come to care for are sadly dying. They’re in need of the peace of God, too.”
The priests have left their parish setting but remain in contact with their parish, ready to assist where needed. Father Connolly celebrates St. Columba’s daily Mass from his location on Facebook Live.
As for testing, the priests are prepared to be tested if they’re feeling symptoms or when they return to their parishes.
“Testing for this seems to be more readily available now,” said Father Connolly, 27. “It might be a good thing to do to put anyone else who might be concerned at ease that we’re OK and we’re healthy.”
The priests said an individual should contact their parish priest if someone is in need of a visit from a priest at a hospital, nursing home or person’s home.
“We hope that people know and understand that their priests in the Archdiocese of New York are very enthusiastic about coming to them with the sacraments and allowing them to encounter Christ through the sacraments and we hope when there is a need they’ll feel comfortable about calling us,” Father Masi said.
Father Connolly added, “We hope our people don’t wait. If they are in need of a spiritual father, call us right away and day or night doesn’t matter, we’ll be there because of our great love for them and our great love for Christ and his Church.”
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