By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
After Father John Manno last week was asked to anoint a sick relative at home, the priest asked a question: Has anyone in the household been sick with coronavirus? He also warned the family he would wear gloves and a mask during his visit.
“The priest has to say, ‘This is the reality and you have to understand things are different,’” said Father Manno, vicar for priests and pastor of Holy Family Church in Fairmount. “You say, ‘I have to wear the mask because of all the illness going around.’ People have been gracious.”
From the Anointing of the Sick to the celebration of Mass, safety joins ritual as clergy adapt age-old practices to minister amid the global pandemic that has suspended public Masses and made social distancing and face masks part of daily life.
Only chaplains can visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes, Father Manno said. Hospital chaplains are trained to use protective gear when ministering to COVID patients and others. But it’s up to clergy to decide if they will visit homes to anoint the sick, who likely do not have COVID.
Health officials say people age 65 and older or those with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. The average age of the diocese’s 90 active priests is 68, putting many Syracuse clergy at increased risk of contracting the illness.
“The thought is for us who are younger, we’re going to be available to help cover those circumstances” when priests do not feel comfortable anointing people, said Father Manno, who is 44.
Diocesan guidelines allow priests to use a cotton swab to anoint the sick, using the Oil of the Infirm blessed at the Chrism Mass. (The Chrism Mass, typically celebrated on Holy Thursday, was postponed this year.)
“I take my glove off to anoint,” Father Manno said. Using a cotton swab “didn’t feel like the right thing to do. My thumb touches their forehead for an instant — a few seconds. Then I quickly use hand sanitizer.”
Father Manno concedes he’s “a little concerned” about personal safety, “but it does not get in the way of ministry.” Prayer helps: “I say, ‘God protect me and keep me safe and healthy and everyone I come into contact with safe and healthy.’”
Anointing of the Sick, one of the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, is “intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house,” the Catechism says.
“It’s important to touch,” Father Manno said. “We represent Christ and the Church in these ritual actions. In the Scriptures, Jesus would touch those who were sick, those who struggled with demons, the blind, the lame. When you walk in, you want to give people a hug or a handshake. You constantly have to retrain yourself: I can’t do this.”
Father Manno wonders what ministry will look like as restrictions ease. “We’ve all probably come to the realization we won’t be distributing the cup to the congregation for a time,” he said. “We won’t be doing the sign of peace. How about social distancing? How many people can we have in church? Will we have to wear masks?”
Diocesan officials are working to answer those questions. In addition to following state and local guidelines, the diocese is reviewing guidelines the U.S. bishops’ conference sent May 1 to bishops. The bishops’ conference cites guidelines prepared by the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. The Institute’s guidelines were prepared and reviewed by clergy and medical doctors. The plan outlines suggestions for celebrating Mass with 10 people, then 50, then with minimal limits.
Health experts have said the coronavirus could continue to spread for the next two years, and it’s unclear how quickly a vaccine will be available. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 22 stay-at-home order is set to expire May 15; some businesses and activities are expected to resume, at least partially, after that.
Some U.S. dioceses resumed public Masses this week as states began lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Catholic churches in Italy may resume public Masses by the end of May.
In an April 21 memo, Syracuse Bishop Douglas J. Lucia said he was studying how “to safely worship without further spread of disease” so that “we are not putting the wider community in harm’s way.” In one step toward creating local policies, Father Christopher Seibt, director of the Office of Liturgy and administrator of Divine Mercy Parish in Central Square, is reviewing surveys that list parishes’ capacity and how pastors might reconfigure seating and schedules.
“The mandate is to keep everyone safe and protect everyone’s health,” Father Seibt said. “Within that mandate, there are so many different ways to do it. There are probably going to be some things prohibited or permitted across the board and there are some that are flexible.”
To maintain social distancing, some parishes may offer additional Masses. Because priests cannot celebrate more than three Sunday Masses, it’s possible parishes would offer Masses throughout the week, he said.
“Communion is the big question,” he said. “Based on guidelines, priests cannot wear gloves to distribute Communion. We will have to do it in such a way that you can reverently drop the host in a person’s hand.” The guidelines do not prohibit receiving Communion on the tongue.
“We’re definitely praying through this as a diocese and trying to be led in a way that responds to the spiritual needs and responds to the public good,” he said. “This is going to be slow and gradual.”