Father José María Cabrera, pastor of All Saints Parish in Bay City, has ministered to COVID-19 patients since March. The Oil of the Sick is placed in a small oil stock to bring to the hospital. Photography by Jeff Schrier
By: Father José María Cabrera, Pastor, All Saints Parish, Bay City
Published January 2021
I have ministered to the sick with COVID-19 (and with other conditions) since March. This ministry fell on me by default since I am the youngest priest in the Bay City area.
I have anointed people from their 40s to their 90s. For the most part, I have been called to anoint the dying. The majority are very sick patients on ventilators; only a few recovered.
I cannot deny that every time I get called, I always think as I walk into the unit, “Will today be the day, Lord, that I contract the virus?” So far that day has not arrived. I have been tested for COVID-19 five times with nasal swabs and one time for antibodies. All negative. Part of me wishes I already had the virus so that I can move on with life.
I have been called to the hospital pretty much every week since April. Sometimes multiple times a week, and on a couple of occasions multiple times a day. Gowning up for each room is exhausting. I don’t know how the nurses get the energy to do that so many times a day on top of their regular duties.
Since a priest is only allowed inside the hospital for the dying, I have not been able to visit parishioners who were not near death or suffering from conditions other than COVID-19. A Rosary prayed in the parking lot was the best I could offer for them."
The most difficult thing is to keep my distance from the people back at the parish. Many times, people get in proximity with me not knowing that just hours before, I had been with a person with COVID-19. Sometimes when I am at Mass, in the confessional or at the office doing the regular duties of a diocesan priest, the doubt would come: “What if I already have the virus? What if I am asymptomatic? Am I spreading it?” You truly become a modern leper and you want to ring the bell of social distancing to keep everyone safe from you. It took me a while to get rid of these thoughts.
Entering these hospital rooms is entering into a sacred space that only few can experience. In many cases, I became the window of information for the outside world where relatives eagerly want to hear a verbal description of how their loved one is doing. In other instances, relatives have given me rosaries, holy cards and scapulars to place them near their loved one as I enter the room - these sacramentals have become a “virtual presence” for the relatives who are not able to go inside. Many people are dying alone.
The power of the Oil of the Sick is beyond our understanding. The word “Christ” means “anointed.” These people whose bodies were completely taken over by the virus still keep the dignity of a Christian."
They are “alter Christus” or “other Christs,” because they are also “anointed” with the oil of healing and salvation.
Since the middle of April, I have been allowed to enter the rooms if I wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) which the Bay City hospital and/or nursing homes normally provide.
Early on, when I was not allowed inside the COVID-19 rooms, I could only pray from the hallway. In this manner I technically could not anoint the sick, but I was able to pray the Litany of the Saints, the Apostolic Pardon and Commendation of the Dying.
Power of prayer
This ministry cannot be done without the support of people’s prayers. I have a small group of friends who pray for me every time I enter the COVID-19 units. Also, a faithful companion in prayer has been Fr. Steve Fillion, a priest in residence at All Saints Parish. He composed a prayer that can be used by healthcare workers. Every time I go into the hospital, I leave multiple copies of the prayer at the nurses’ stations. The parish Prayer Line prayer warriors are always praying for my safety.
This ministry cannot be done without the support of people’s prayers."
Nurses are stressed and tired. From time to time, I exchange words with them and assure them of the prayers of the Church. One nurse described her feelings as “We are numb, Father. Each day is like the same day repeated over and over since March.” The nurses are exposed to these patients for 12-hour shifts. A five to 10-minute anointing is not much of a sacrifice compared to what these healthcare workers do for these patients. They truly care.
No one is a number
By now pretty much every resident in Bay County knows someone by name who contracted the virus, who either recovered from it or died because of it. The pandemic is no longer something far away from us. It’s no longer “China, Italy, New York or even Detroit.” It’s right here among us.
In the news we see numbers of new cases. At the hospital or nursing homes, I don’t see numbers; I see persons: someone’s mother, someone’s grandfather, a brother, a sister, a friend with a name."
I have to mention their name as I say the prayers of the Church. “I have called you by name,” says the Lord. And I must say, of those who died after these powerful encounters, I cannot wait to see them again in the Kingdom where there is no suffering or pain.
On the evening of the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Bay County Health Department informed me that I had been nominated for the reception of the Pfizer vaccine as a frontline responder. I would have never imagined that I would be considered among the first groups of people to be vaccinated.
This only reveals that spiritual care is crucial in any healthcare system. We are not just bodies, we are persons – body and soul – created by the love of God and we come from God and we return to God.
Workers in the vineyard
Between that phone call and the reception of the first dose of the vaccine three days later, I was called to anoint patients with COVID-19 five times. That’s how needed this ministry is during these times of pandemic.
And God always provides. God does not abandon his people."
I have to admit that the reception of the vaccine comes with a bit of guilt since the doses are limited in our area, and I am sure there are people who could well use the doses given to me.
Yet, the reception of the vaccine gives me encouragement to continue serving the People of God in this capacity, and perhaps to do it with a little bit more confidence that indeed there is some light at the end of this tunnel.
At the end of the day, it’s God’s work. God takes care of his vineyard. We are only workers in his vineyard, and the future is not our own.