Early during the coronavirus pandemic, Father Ray McDaniel found himself in an unusually quiet hospital, there to do something he’d done a hundred times before — administer last rites to a dying man.
This time, though, things were a lot different.
The patient he was about to bless had a highly contagious virus the world knew little about.
Elective surgeries had been halted, as medical professionals were bracing for an onslaught of COVID-19 patients.
The hospital hallways were dark and silent.
The sense that something overwhelming was about to happen was palpable.
For McDaniel, pastor of St. Phillip the Apostle in Lewisville, Texas, the experience was surreal.
It was also an incredible mercy — not just for the man he anointed — but for McDaniel, too.
For many reasons and in many different ways, the ongoing pandemic has been a time of profound human suffering.
But, as McDaniel told me, these difficult months have also been an extra time of grace.
Perhaps now, more than in times of widespread prosperity, we have an “opportunity to focus more clearly on God and what matters,” he said.
For a lot of people, what matters during these difficult and uncertain times is their relationship with God.
For Catholics in particular, that relationship is not just spiritual but physical.
The sacraments, for example, are earthly expressions of divine grace — visible, material signs of God’s invisible but ubiquitous love — and the early lockdowns and quarantines have made receiving the sacraments, especially communion and the anointing of the sick, difficult and in certain circumstances, potentially risky.
“You are prepared to encounter all sorts of health situations,” said McDaniel, referring to priests’ years of training in seminary.
Ministering to one’s flock in the midst of a pandemic is not one of the “health situations” for which priests specifically prepare.
But thankfully, the pandemic hasn’t stopped them, either.
At least here in North Texas, much of that is because of good safety protocols and strong diocesan leadership.
McDaniel described safety measures taken when visiting sick parishioners, for example. They include wearing protective equipment, of course, but also changing clothes in the garage, immediately showering and laundering garments upon returning home.
The stringent protocols have helped keep priests safe in the Fort Worth diocese, but they also have helped reassure health care workers about how the church is taking the pandemic seriously.
“We’ve never had any trouble getting into an institution (to visit a congregant),” said McDaniel, who has taken great joy in personally arranging through-the-glass visits for elderly people isolated in nursing homes.
For Catholics not required to isolate, getting back to mass has been a special grace.
“Every week somebody new comes back,” said McDaniel, overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for being able to participate in a ritual many will never again take for granted.
The diocese temporarily suspended in-person Masses in March but opened them to the public in May, earlier than many dioceses in Texas. They’ve included anti-virus protocols — distancing, mask wearing, limiting attendance at any particular service — so that people are spiritually fed, but also healthy and safe.
Like anywhere people gather in close proximity for prolonged periods of time (even with safety measures in place), church services have been implicated for playing an allegedly outsize role in spreading the virus.
Just weeks ago, The New York Times reported that “more than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Considering that the U.S. is nearing 5 million positive cases, connecting just 650 to houses of worship would suggest the opposite of what The Times was attempting to claim: that churches are overwhelmingly getting things right during this pandemic.
For its part, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth reports not a single case of the virus resulting from Mass, and only one priest who contracted the virus outside of Mass and quarantined until he was clear.
It’s evidence that worship can be safe and fulfilling even during a viral outbreak.
And it’s a reminder that even when things feel bleak, there are extra graces all around us.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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