For centuries nautical explorers have traveled the earth seeking new lands and civilizations. For weeks and months, they sailed following their maps by day and the stars by night, but in the midst of storms they would have to seek out a beacon of light to show them the way. For these nautical explorers the lighthouse beacon would become their solace in the darkness and their guide by day.
For several weeks now we have all been living our own journey of exploration. This exploration, however, has no maps or guides to follow, and it comes in the midst of a national coronavirus pandemic.
Who would have thought as we began our journey of Lent it would be transformed into a journey like no other?
The journey only became worse when Masses were suspended. How would the darkness of this pandemic be transformed by a beacon of light?
But parishes developed ways to communicate with the faithful through internet platforms like Zoom, YouTube and Facebook Live. Masses began to be streamed online for the faithful to participate. Priests found unique ways to hear confessions. Penitents had their sins forgiven.
What about the sick? How are they being cared for? This question became real to me during Holy Week. Having been trained as a hospital chaplain I knew the complexities that this pandemic posed to many of our health care facilities including our hospitals. There are patients who need to receive the Sacrament of the Sick, and families who need to be comforted in this most trying time.
It was Wednesday night of Holy Week and I had just finished my dinner and settled into what I thought would be a quiet night. The Lord had other plans.
At 7 p.m. the phone rang. It was a family who needed their priest. Their 94-year-old mother was in the emergency room dying and she need to receive the Anointing of the Sick. I hurried to get ready and grabbed my little kit with everything I needed for Anointing and raced to the emergency room.
When I arrived, the hospital would not let me in. I was met at the door with resistance: “Father, I’m sorry, but you cannot come in. We are locked down because there are patients with COVID-19 and we cannot let you in.”
Having the knowledge and experience of hospital ministry prepared me for this situation, but how was I to get in to administer the sacrament to this dying lady? I persisted with the hospital staff, urging them to make an exception, but it was to no avail.
My only hope was contact the hospital administrator to gain the access I needed. Having explained to the administrator my experience as a hospital chaplain, I was able to convince her to allow me access to the dying woman. Upon entering the hospital, I donned the appropriate medical gear of a surgical gown, followed by two face masks and surgical gloves, to enter the room of my patient. She had tested positive for COVID-19.
As I was walking to the door of my patient, I thought to myself, this is for the glory of God so that his daughter may be ready to meet him. I entered the room and saw a weak, burdened woman lying in the bed wearing an oxygen face mask, struggling to breath.
I leaned over and called her name. She opened her eyes and I told her who I was, wearing all this medical protection but with my priest stole on the outside to remind her (and myself) of why I was there. She closed her eyes and I administered the Anointing of the Sick and bestowed the Apostolic Pardon. I blessed her and assured her that she was ready to meet the Lord.
Upon leaving the patient’s room, I was confronted with the ER staff outside the door, huddled together, crying. When I asked why there were tears, they told me that they were so moved that I risked my own life to administer the sacrament to this dying woman. I reminded them that my priesthood was not my own, but that I shared in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and that is was he who was there that night. I am but his instrument.
I left the hospital and found the family of my patient huddled outside in the parking lot, for even they could not get inside. They approached and I assured them their mom had received the sacraments. The family informed me that during my time inside the hospital they prayed to our Blessed Mother, under her title of Our Lady of Health, that she would wrap me in her mantle of love as I ministered to their mother.
On Holy Thursday morning, the day we celebrate the gift of the priesthood, I received a call from the family informing me that their mother had been tested again for the coronavirus, but this time there was no sign of it. The power of prayer and the hand of God had prevailed — she would be spared the additional suffering of COVID-19 as she prepared to meet her Lord.
Joyfully at 5:30 a.m. on Easter morning as the Dawn from on High appeared in his glorious Resurrection, the Lord called his 94-year-old daughter to eternal life!
In the midst of this dark time, may we experience within ourselves a renewal of love and respect for Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest, who through his humble priestly servants he has made visible to us the True Beacon of Light! The Light of Christ, the Lumen Christi! Deo Gratias! Thanks be to God!
Father Richard D. Breton, Jr. is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut. He is currently the parochial vicar of St. Andrew Parish in Colchester, Connecticut, and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Lebanon, Connecticut.