Wearing his personal protective gear, Father Chris Ponnet said he “feels extremely safe” while he’s anointing the sick and speaking with patients recovering from COVID-19.
The fear and anxiety will later surface when Father Ponnet, the director of spiritual care for LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, walks between hospital buildings outside or when he goes to a nearby grocery store.
“I mean, anything can happen. We know how this virus moves. It’s pretty clear you need to keep your mask on, keep your distance, don’t touch your eyes and wash your hands,” said Father Ponnet, who is also pastor of St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, a city where the novel coronavirus has been surging in recent weeks.
The resurgent pandemic is not only prompting mayors across the country to issue mandatory mask ordinances and pressuring some governors to consider issuing stay-at-home orders weeks after they began reopening their states. The surge is also creating new uncertainty and stress for priests in the new emerging epicenters.
“We’re all concerned about that. I’m more on the cautious side, in the sense of if we’re headed for a second shutdown, let’s go ahead and lean into it and get this thing taken care of,” said Father Joshua Whitfield, the pastoral administrator of St. Rita Church in Dallas.
Father Whitfield, whose parish operates a school, told Our Sunday Visitor that he is most worried for the parishioners who have been laid off and out of work, adding that another shutdown could further squeeze them financially and make it difficult for many of them to send their children to school.
“The thing that makes me sad and angry is how since April, collectively, we have been so irresponsible in our behavior that now we’re on the cusp of a second shutdown and really harming our children,” Father Whitfield said.
The risk of illness
Across much of the South, Midwest and West Coast, dozens of states this summer have been reporting daily record numbers of new coronavirus infections, deaths and hospitalizations. The virus is spreading like wildfire in states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and California.
“All of our chaplains are seeing patients with the virus on a daily basis. In fact, one of our chaplains just tested positive for it,” Father Ponnet told Our Sunday Visitor. He added that the hospital has seen a steady daily increase in COVID-19 patients, from about 60 in mid-March to around 105 in mid-July.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that I might be the last person to talk to a patient with coronavirus,” Father Ponnet said. “I feel that my role is to be as pastorally present as possible to the COVID patient, whether they’re sick or dying.”
More than 140,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since February, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted in mid-July that number could rise to between 150,000-170,000 by Aug. 8.
“Because (the virus) is an invisible enemy, there’s always a possibility you can have it, or transmit it and not know it. That worries me,” said Father John Lankeit, the rector of the Cathedral of Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix.
Last month, a priest in the Phoenix cathedral rectory tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting Father Lankeit and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted to self-isolate for a few weeks. Father Lankeit told Our Sunday Visitor that the quarantine at least provided a helpful “pause” from the daily grind of running the cathedral parish.
“I think the most stressful thing is you can’t plan in any consistent way, because things change so quickly. Then if you run into the virus on a personal basis or someone very close to you gets it, it becomes very real,” Father Lankeit said.
“I’m worried about me giving it to someone,” he said. “We’re taking every precaution we can without being overly afraid or paranoid. We do everything we can within reason without compromising the integrity of the liturgy. We’re constantly working to strike that right balance, and it’s difficult, because no matter what you do, you will receive criticism. That’s where a lot of the stress comes from.”
Points of stress
In Kingwood, Texas — a suburb of Houston — Father T.J. Dolce, pastor of St. Martha Church, told Our Sunday Visitor that parish finance for him is the biggest source of stress related to COVID-19.
“Collections are down. I’m worried about what’s going to happen with our school,” Father Dolce said. “If the government says nobody is going back to school in person, I’ve had a lot of families come to me and say, ‘We’re gonna pull our kids out because we can’t afford to pay Catholic school tuition and home-school our kids at the same time.'”
Carmelite Father Ignatius Plathanam, the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Orange Park, Florida, told Our Sunday Visitor that he is getting weary of telling the ministry leaders and volunteers in his vibrant parish that they need to curtail their activities because of the coronavirus.
“People are getting tired, bored; they want to go out, and they’re losing patience and getting frustrated,” said Father Plathanam, whose parish is located in the Diocese of St. Augustine in northern Florida. “I have to push back on some of the things they want to do, because if you let one group start one thing, then another group wants to do it. I’m always having to tell them to be patient and be careful. Safety has to come first.”
With COVID-19 entering its fifth month in the United States, the strain that the pandemic is placing on priests, hospital chaplains and pastors around the country are practicing some form of self-care, especially spiritually.
“I’m staying faithful to my prayer time, the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic adoration,” Father Dolce said. “But I’m also trying to stay healthy. I’m still committing to exercise and getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night so that I can be as healthy as possible for this.”
Father Whitfield in Dallas, a former Episcopal priest who is married with four children, said he’s maintained his mental wellness partly by rising early.
“That time is really sort of precious to me, because it’s just a time of silence. When the church is closed, I’ll sit in the Eucharistic chapel and do nothing other than just sit. That’s something that allows me not to escape the noise of what’s going on, but to find the strength I need to be a pastor in the world,” Father Whitfield said.
Every morning before starting his rounds at the LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, Father Ponnet and the team of hospital chaplains gather for an hour of quiet time, prayer and fellowship. When he began his chaplaincy almost 30 years ago, Father Ponnet remembers the pastor at the time being overwhelmed and on the verge of “emotionally crashing.”
“I find that in the midst of these kinds of situations, a lot of people can become frantic and lose focus,” Father Ponnet said. “A daily commitment to prayer and teamwork allows me to cry if I need to cry, laugh if i need to laugh and rest if I have to rest. That keeps me sane, keeps me focused, keeps me at peace, and, I hope, keeps me as a good minister for the people I serve.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.