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Priests say comforting souls part of their healing ministry

Hospital chaplains continue serving patients through COVID-19 pandemic, emotional toll

Published: November 26, 2021   
courtesy Fr. Beni Wego, SVD
Fr. Beni Wego, SVD, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) before visiting patients at the Emergency Room at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Louisiana in April 2020. Fr. Wego spent six years as a chaplain there before taking the same role at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro in September 2020.

Catholic Health Care Series, Part 3 of 3

Father Warren Harvey walked into a young Hispanic woman’s room early in the COVID-19 pandemic to give the sacrament of last rites. A few family members were allowed inside the hospital at the time but not in the room. 

“I went in the room by myself, and they stood outside looking through the window, and they wanted so much to be there, and just to be in proximity, close. And that was very hard for me,” Father Harvey, a chaplain at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, told Arkansas Catholic, calling the emotional toll “tremendous.” 

“You are the pseudo relative not only in proximity but just from the standpoint of support for the patient. … They’re sick, and they look at you. And, of course, you’re in gloves and a face mask and headgear, and you can touch them, but it’s with a glove. And I would think often because they have nothing on, as far as protective (PPE), and often think what it must feel like to just not be 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 this whole thing, is it real or is it not real? And yet I’m seeing real people come into the hospital on ventilators.”

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


In the same boat

A chaplain is a health care worker responsible for a patient’s emotional and spiritual well-being, whether religious or not. Father George Sanders, pastor of St. John Church in Hot Springs and a chaplain for eight years, said it is not their job to push 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 would not be a big deal, Father Sanders said. But soon, “A third of the hospital was locked down in COVID mode.”

In early 2020, it was mostly older adults sick with the virus. It shifted this summer. 

“This time, with delta (variant), there were no old people. I saw people my age and younger, 30s and 40s, struggling for their life,” he said. 

From the beginning, Father Harvey, a night shift ER nurse for 12 years before his priestly ministry, said the seriousness of the pandemic hit home. His sister, Ida, died from COVID-19 April 18, 2020. He later lost another sister, Shirley, Jan. 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 this whole thing, is it real or is it not real? And yet I’m seeing real people come into the hospital on ventilators,” Father Harvey said. 

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

“We’d walked by, all the doors were closed, and you see people lying on their stomach. … It was a stark reality like this is something very different than what we’ve ever had 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 how to discover or rediscover ourselves by reaching out to people that walk a different path of faith,” Father Wego said. 

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

“Many times we’d find (the staff) crying because they did everything they could for that person and yet they died,” Father Sanders said. 

Both he and Father Harvey often shared the story with health care workers of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee while the disciples feared for their lives in the rocking boat. 

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


Video chats and rosaries 

When visitors were barred from entering the hospitals, chaplains often stepped in to mediate. 

“It was extremely difficult. I was with a man one time whose wife was having a heart attack. She is in the ER, and he could not enter. These are heart-wrenching things,” Father Sanders said, adding he stayed with the woman, who did survive. “There wasn’t anything to fight this demon with, especially in the early times of this pandemic. … It’s that unknowing and the inability to be next to your loved one who is going through a tragic trauma on their own. We’re social people; God made us so. Especially in those moments of life, if our time to leave this life is close, we need our family.”

Before 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 a “hot spot” at one point.

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

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

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

Father Wego has continued to minister at 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 have seen is patients still have hope,” Father Wego said. 

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

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


Hope and mercy 

Before the vaccine was available, Father Sanders said his older friend in good health, who still went hiking and canoeing at 70, died from the virus. 

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

A younger friend who had determined the vaccine was a “hoax” died in the ICU. While he said 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 the COVID patients filling the hospital. 

“There’s so much disinformation out there that led to a certain thought or understanding that is probably not well-founded,” Father Sanders said, pointing to a popular quote by Robert A. Heinlein: “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.” 

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

“Jesus always cared before he cured. 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 aspect of our ministry is that we can, and we first say, ‘I care.’ And realizing that being the only Catholic priest in a Catholic hospital, I’m representing my Church.” 

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

“I’ve seen time and time and time again that the nurses in that room will not let this person pass this life alone. … They saw that dignity; they saw Christ,” Father Sanders said. 

Father Wego said the pandemic has allowed him to bring his priestly ministry to those suffering. 

“I read the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus told his disciples, ‘Blessed are you.’ His blessings always remain, whether we’re in the good times or bad times. That’s very important because the result is not from us; it’s from Jesus. He promised us blessings. I believe no power in this world will prevent blessings,” Father Wego said. “I am still very optimistic about the future because faith is there; it’s alive.”

Read Catholic Health Care Series

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

     Part 2: Endurance, faith getting hospital staff through pandemic

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