Standing beside a hospital bed, priests are giving patients their last rites wearing masks, hospital gowns and an unwavering sense of certainty.
The Catholic tradition of administering last rites has been acted out for thousands of years, but due to the aggressively spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) they’re looking a little different in modern times.
At Saint Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, priests are still going to hospitals to administer last rites to those about to take their final breaths, said Sam Samorian, director of development.
The tradition of performing last rites involves a final confession and a final communion, for those who still have the ability to do so. It also provides a sense of closure and prepares the individual for their journey to heaven, Samorian said.
When priests are performing those services in hospitals, Samorian said they’re wearing all the personal protective gear that’s necessary and are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Samorian said they haven’t been to any personal homes or senior care facilities.
“Our community is closed to all visitors, however, if there is a resident who is at the end of life, we would welcome the family members only after they pass a very extensive COVID-19 screening process which includes temperature checks,” Lisa Bates, spokeswoman for Williamsburg Landing, wrote in an email.
All visitors must wear PPE, maintain social distancing and are only allowed to visit the resident’s room.
The recommendation for the number of visitors in a resident’s room is two, but it’s a case-by-case basis depending on the space.
While the facility has a chaplain program, those who wish to receive last rites or other sacraments can request to meet with their clergy.
Williamsburg Landing has technology available to connect people virtually to their loved ones, including clergy members.
“If someone wants to have the sacraments given, our chaplains are not qualified to do that in certain religions,” Bates said. “We want to be as accommodating as possible.”
Audrey Smith, executive director at the Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg, said the facility has a total of four beds and each room has its own private entrance.
“Because we are small, we can personalize the experience,” Smith said. “We do have a chaplain who is a full-time employee at hospice house.”
Catholic guests can request their priest to administer last rites.
Any clergy member must use the room’s private entrance and wear personal protective equipment.
Smith said the facility follows CDC guidelines and checks the temperatures of people who wish to enter the patient’s room, including members of the clergy and family members.
Visitors are also interviewed about their recent travel history and if they have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The number of people limited to the room can be anywhere from one to two at a time, but Smith said it’s a case by case decision by the clinical director.
The facility has not used technology during last rites to connect family members unable to visit the facility.
“No we haven’t been thru that yet,” Smith said. “We would be certainly open to doing that”
The facility’s procedures could change and there are currently no positive cases of the coronavirus and all staff are equipped with PPE.
In the past few weeks, priests from Saint Bede have performed a normal number of these services, but Samorian said what’s changed is the amount of anointing for the sick that’s being requested.
In the Catholic faith, the anointing of the sick is a ritual that can be performed on someone who is ill or preparing for surgery. The purpose is to help bring spiritual strength to those going through physical weakness.
“Anointing is in case you heal, last rites is to prepare for the journey to heaven,” Samorian said.
Before the coronavirus, Samorian said priests were performing those services almost daily.
Now, they’ve nearly stopped.
Samorian said that’s because people would typically come to the church to receive the anointment or a priest would come to their home. But Saint Bede has stopped home visits and no longer visits senior care facilities because of the restrictions.
“We’re not able to do what we normally would,” he said. “It really challenges an individual’s faith to be able to have that spiritual anointing, it’s a very meaningful sacrament for many of our parishioners.”
While some churches across the nation have taken to performing the services via video conferencing technology, Samorian said Saint Bede hasn’t gotten to that point yet. As the coronavirus continues to spread through the community, he said the goal is to continue connecting people in safe and meaningful ways as much as possible.
“With video technology, of course we’re able to do a lot more,” he said. “But all the technology in the world can’t replace that human interaction.”
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