The Los Angeles Times this weekend looks at how one of the cherished sacraments of the Catholic Church — anointing of the sick — has been adapted to the present crisis:
At a time when deaths have become a national preoccupation, tallied live daily on television, the changes to last rites seem especially poignant. The sacrament, officially called anointing of the sick, exists now in a liminal state not unlike many of those who receive it.
In much of the country, hospitals, including Catholic ones, have decided it is too risky for priests to give the sacrament to those ill from the highly contagious virus. Some have told chaplains to stay away from the hospital and have ended spiritual “rounding” — or paying visits to patients room by room — as part of the effort to reduce spread of the virus.
In other places, the sacrament continues, but with alterations that might make it hard to recognize.
In Boyle Heights, three priests at L.A. County-USC Medical Center suit up in gowns, gloves and masks to administer last rites to virus sufferers. Instead of carrying a large ceremonial vessel, they pour a small amount in a disposable plastic container and dot it on the patient’s forehead and hands with a swab. They pray through N95 masks.
The most profound alteration may be the absence of loved ones at the bedside. In regular times, the rite can be the beginning of the grieving process, with the patient and family and friends sharing memories and expressions of love. With COVID-19, it is often only the priest and a patient too ill to communicate.
“It’s a different form of ministry,” said Father Chris Ponnet, a chaplain at County-USC for 26 years. “The anointing is not a superstitious thing. It’s really where the priest is representing not only God, but the presence of the community.”
When virus patients are lucid, the loneliness of isolation can be oppressive. Catholic deacon Guido Zamalloa counsels COVID-19 patients at Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia by phone. During one recent call, a 55-year-old woman with the disease described being tired, feverish and anxious about not having her family.
Zamalloa listened and then he and the woman recited the Our Father prayer in unison.
“It’s a spiritual support for the patients,” he said.