We the laity — not just clergy — could have been more courageous during COVID

5 mins read

Recently, Cardinal Timothy Dolan asked, “Did we go too far on COVID-19 restrictions? … were we … obedient to the biblical commands to be near the sick, to comfort the dying, to reverently bury the dead, and, for us deacons, priests and bishops, to bring the sacraments and the Church’s prayerful accompaniment to those very sick from the virus?”

First, I applaud His Eminence for his public self-examination related to how he and the American Church handled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not every day that you see a cardinal publicly do an after-action review on what we got right, and what we could improve upon. I think this takes a lot of humility and courage, and to the good cardinal I say: “Bravo!” I think such self-evaluation, openly and publicly, is healthy, healing, and allows for us collectively to grow and learn. It would be very interesting to have a larger “review” of the Church’s COVID response with a cross section of clergy and lay people, with perhaps a public discussion at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sometimes, we never look back, and by not doing so, never learn in our institutional consciousness.

Chaplains COVID
Chaplain Bill Simpson talks with a patient in the emergency room at SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Shawnee, Okla, in 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us the heroes in our midst. And hospital chaplains rank high on that list. (CNS photo/Nick Oxford, Reuters)

Remember the heroes

I do think context is equally important to any review, because, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Let us learn, but let us also remember what was happening at the time and frankly how little we knew. Context matters!

There were a lot of unknowns about COVID and its spread (remember quarantining your mail in the garage and washing your groceries?), and the hospitals were filling up fast and being overrun to the point of potential collapse. Bishops were forced to rely on information from medical and civil authorities, and they had the dual concern of spiritual nourishment and potential physical harm. So, while certainly we need to do a self-evaluation, I think particularly us laity, should be charitable as we weigh the decisions made by Church leadership.

Cardinal Dolan asks the question about our pastoral care of the sick during COVID, and as someone who had COVID very severely, and was sedated and intubated for six weeks and had another 45 days of in-hospital rehab, I felt my pastoral care was excellent. In my reception of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in ICU, at great personal risk to himself, Father Tony Steinacker of Huntington, Indiana, was that model of sacrifice that the cardinal reflected upon. To this day, I am not sure how he got back to me before they sedated me.

And let’s acknowledge that there were many priests, hospital chaplains, not to mention doctors, nurses and technicians all over the country, who lived this self-sacrificial reality daily. And we owe them a debt of gratitude. In my case, I had a courageous doctor who would sit next to my bedside at night while I was sedated, and when no one else could visit, he would put Lourdes water on my forehead, and he would pray with me. I had another doctor later as I recovered, who would come and push me down to Mass in a wheelchair. I had nurses who would walk with me at night, and we would talk about faith and family.

Woman visiting her elderly mother during quarantine
Adobe Stock

Care for sick and elderly

But we must acknowledge there were some who didn’t respond. I was in the hospital for 90 days, followed by in home rehab, and my pastor at the time (yes, my pastor) never came and visited, never came to pray with me, never checked on my family, and, for all practical purposes, shut down during COVID presumably out of fear of contracting the virus himself. I would never judge a heart, but I think we must acknowledge how those parishes in the Church who did show heroic, sacrificial love to parishioners during COVID grew during and after. Drive thru blessings, call chains, care packages, etc. — they found ways to connect with their flock. It took ingenuity, creativity, and grit! On the flipside, those parishes that hunkered down shrunk and suffered — both then and now.

I have come to see there are reasons why we elevate St. Damien of Molokai. This level of courage can be rare and not something taught in seminaries or pastoral theology — and we don’t screen for the priesthood like they are Navy Seals, but maybe we should. His story is something we don’t often speak of in teaching the spiritual and corporal works of mercy — but maybe we should. We often see martyrdom through the lens of the apostles, but not too often through the eyes of a caregiver.

Moreover, in the spirit of self-examination, including myself, we could have done better in how we advocated for the sick and elderly during lockdowns. Months before I had COVID and went through my ordeal, we lost my grandmother who was in a nursing home and completely reliant on caseworkers. Of course, when everything shut down, family was prevented from entry, and as such, we were unable to know what level of care she was getting, who was attending to her needs. In the end, through negligence on the care facility (likely due to lack of staffing), my grandmother ended up in the hospital, and once we could bring her home, she died shortly after. It is clear to me that her decline and ultimate death was expedited by the lack of access afforded to her family.

Covid patient

We could have been more courageous

However, as leaders, I think we could have spoken out more and been a prophetic witness to the importance of family access to the sick and elderly. We left them on their own — only able to speak through a screen, if that, and super reliant on nurses to also be friends. A phone call and a video call is NOT the same as physical interactions and meetings — and that says nothing about the important work families do in holding others to account for the care they are getting. The family knows them best! The voice of the family advocate is crucial and important. And if family members, perhaps because of their own physical vulnerabilities or fear of contracting COVID, couldn’t go, then I think Catholics — cardinals, priests and lay people alike — could have been courageous enough to go in to hold hands (as many did in my case) and argue it was part of our religious freedom to do so. Religious liberty must include the call to serve and care for others.

We could have acted, and we didn’t. It comes down to courage of our convictions — courage not when we see it coming and are ready, but courage when we lack information, when the world is scared and shut down, and when we have lots to lose. Spiritual care, and the care of the sick by loved ones, is an essential work. Doctors, nurses and medical professionals should not be the only ones who run into the storm; we should have as well. This underscores our need as Church for Catholic healthcare, and COVID I think demonstrated its necessity and importance.

Jason Shanks

Jason Shanks is president of the OSV Institute.