Much has been written about the toll of COVID-19 on frontline workers, especially doctors and nurses. Russell Pollitt SJ issues a stark reminder that priests are frontline workers too. They celebrate funerals in bizarre circumstances, but they are also ministering to families who have lost loved ones and members of their communities who are, increasingly, falling into poverty. This takes a toll on their mental and spiritual health.
A priest friend works in a busy parish. The parish has three churches in a densely populated area, one of the churches is across the road from a large hospital. He sent me a video of mortuary vans lined up to collect bodies at the hospital. That week he did seven COVID-19 “funerals”.
“Funerals” because they are not really funerals. I have done them too. You are only allowed 10-15 minutes at the crematorium. It is heartless and cold. Dressed in PPE, behind a mask and gloves, you pray the prayers of commendation and sprinkle the remains. The coffin marked “Caution. Hazardous Remains” is quickly removed. There is little time to mourn. Consoling the loved ones is impossible. There is a good chance that some of the loved one’s present will be positive too as they have had contact with their dead relative.
Churches are no longer allowed to gather – and rightly so. We are living in the midst of a pandemic and people are dying. We must protect life. My friend now spends his days alone, cooking for people in his parish who do not have the means to feed themselves. Many have lost their jobs; they have no income. Others are sick and cannot leave their homes – sometimes a whole family is positive. Luckily there are still donors who give him meat and vegetables to cook. He has swapped his clerical attire, literally, for an apron. He is doing his best to respond to the need.
Most priests become ministers so that they can accompany others, help them, share in their joys and sorrows. Their presence is important in the day to day life of the people they serve. Daily priests administer sacraments, help the poor, visit homes, lend a listening ear, visit the sick and administer our parishes by doing things like looking after the maintenance of our places of worship. For months now priests have not been able to do what they naturally do and feel deeply inside themselves. The only daily reality has fast become dealing with poverty, sickness and death.
There are financial worries too. Many churches have lost most of their income since March 2020. Some priests are struggling themselves to survive. They too have lost their income.
For many priests the shift to online masses was hard. Besides the fact that it seems foreign to Catholic liturgy – which is very tangible and because people cannot receive communion – many parishes don’t have the financial resources to stream online. Many parishioners do not have access to data and so were cut off from what was available online even if the parish was streaming masses.
When churches re-opened after the last closure priests were stressed about the attrition rate: people simply did not participate online or return to church when public worship was allowed again. A report by the Barna Group (which conducts studies into the state of the church) revealed that 32% of Christians say they have done nothing about church since the beginning of COVID. There are many factors which need to be considered, however the fact remains that many congregations have shrunk.
The toll that the pandemic is taking on minsters – and the aftermath – should not be underestimated. Many are tired, overwhelmed, lonely, stressed, conflicted and fearful. Many priests have poor support systems. So, when you remember frontline workers – as we should – remember to pray for those ministers who are on the frontline. They need it.