Signs of hope for the suffering

Priests share experiences of visiting and anointing COVID-19 patients

Aaron Lambert

One night, Father Emanuele Fadini, FSCB, was called to anoint a COVID-19 patient on the verge of death. It was the first time Father Fadini had witnessed the symptoms of COVID-19 he had only read about in the news; the patient was gasping for air and unable to breathe, almost as if he was drowning.

Up to that point, all of the COVID-19 patients he had visited in the hospital were unconscious. This man was not.

“He was in agony,” Father Fadini recalled. “That was the only time I saw a conscious patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in the ICU.”

Because the patient was still conscious, Father Fadini was able to hear his confession, anoint him with the oil, and give him what the Church calls “food for the journey,” or the viaticum, in the form of the Eucharist.

He also gave the patient his rosary. He told Father Fadini that he used to pray in the past, but then he stopped. Father Fadini encouraged the patient to hold it, and if he could, to pray with it, assuring him that the Blessed Mother “was there, more real than myself and was going to receive the tears of this man and bring them to Christ, preparing his soul and body for the Lord.”

The patient did not survive. When Father Fadini left him, he did so bearing the pain of his gasping and his panting. At the same time, he gave thanks to God.

“Thanks God that you are,” he said. “Because this man found you again.”

Quietly, priests have been visiting sick and dying patients in hospitals, offering the sacraments to those who need them most. While some hospitals are not allowing priests to visit those infected with the novel coronavirus, priests remain ready and willing to go to the ones that are. Anytime, day or night – if they receive a call, they go.

Medical professionals and researchers around the world are learning more about the novel coronavirus with each passing day, but its increased threat for older people and those with underlying health conditions seems to be a general consensus among them. As hospitals within the Archdiocese of Denver began to admit more COVID-19 patients, the Vicar for Clergy asked the younger priests of the archdiocese to volunteer to administer the Sacraments of the Sick to those who needed it.

Father Fadini, associate pastor at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Broomfield, is just one priest of many within the archdiocese who freely volunteered.

“I have visited about 15 sick people with COVID so far,” Father Fadini told the Denver Catholic. “I am provided with all the gear. When I visit the hospital, I follow the procedures. I know that I am exposed to a risk. And definitely my precautions are not to put anyone else at risk that I am in touch with later.”

Father Fadini has been visiting COVID-19 patients in Centura Health facilities near his parish, where he has heard confessions and administered anointings of the sick to those who request it. The opportunity to do so, he said, has “been a grace for my priesthood.”

The power of anointing

As a priest, besides the specific precautionary measures, Father Fadini’s modus operandi for visiting a person with COVID-19 remains the same as when he visits a person suffering from any other illness.

“When you see a sick person, you approach that person as Christ, as the living body of Christ,” he said.

In addition to the traditional anointing with oil that is commonly associated with the anointing of the sick, this sacrament also includes the viaticum, or “food for the journey,” in the form of the Eucharist. However, if a person is not conscious, the priest can only perform the anointing with the oil.

In one recent visit to a hospital, Father Fadini anointed a COVID-19 patient who was unconscious.

Priests of the Archdiocese of Denver have been quietly visiting patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in hospitals that allow them and performing anointings of the sick.

“I put on the full gear, the particular mask and the gown. When I entered, I saw the person was unconscious. Totally unconscious. So I gave the anointing. I could only give the anointing, of course, at that point,” he recalled.

This particular visit, however, spurred in him a memory of a woman he anointed two years ago who recovered from her illness.

“[I remembered] a previous experience of another sick person I visited two years ago who told me that when she received the anointing, she clearly also felt in her body a startling recovery,” he recounted. “Of course, this is a sort of a grace that is given to everybody. We know that it can work without visible effects, and especially spiritually.”

Keeping in mind the experience of this parishioner from several years ago, Father Fadini also prayed for the healing of the COVID-19 patient he anointed, and eventually she recovered. “I was moved by the tears of the husband, who was assisting with the rite over the phone, which was held close to me by the doctor. His tears brought me to dare to implore for her healing.”

In her gratitude, she wrote a short letter to Father Fadini.

“She wrote that the anointing, my visit and the faith of all the ones who prayed around her for her literally kept her here on Earth,” he said.

A call to conversion

The Lord is always calling his people to conversion. In normal, everyday life, the call to offer trials and sufferings up to him is ever-present. However, in the midst of this pandemic, when fear and uncertainty are rampant, this call to conversion becomes even more urgent.

But what is the basis of this fear? Catholics and Christians rely on the hope evident in the resurrection of Christ to cast aside all fear and doubt. This fact is especially pertinent in the Easter season the Church is currently in. Even so, the fear of death and suffering lingers, especially as the numbers of those people who have died as a result of COVID-19 dominate headlines.

However, as Father Francesco Basso puts it, this fear is a deception of the enemy. It is not from God.

“Death is not the problem. We will all die,” Father Basso said. “In this Easter time, the resurrection announces that death has already been destroyed. The real problem is the fear of death, which is what comes from the suggestions of the devil.”

Father Basso is the parochial vicar at St. Louis Parish in Englewood, and like Father Fadini, he has also been visiting COVID-19 patients and administering anointings of the sick. He responds to calls from Swedish Medical Center in Denver and various nursing homes in the Denver area.

“When you see a sick person, you approach that person as Christ, as the living body of Christ.”

Rather than waiting until a person is on the verge of death, Swedish Medical began calling priests in the morning to come and anoint those who are infected with COVID-19.

“This was a smart idea,” Father Basso said, “because this means that we are not obliged to wait for the last moment when they are unconscious.”

In visiting those suffering from COVID-19, Father Basso has witnessed hearts open to hearing and embracing the love of God. He encouraged one man who was Catholic but had been away from the Church for years to return. He heard the confession of a woman who had also been away from the Church for many years and invited her to receive the mercy of God.

“Those cases are truly incredible,“ Father Basso said.

The call to conversion extends beyond just those infected with COVID-19, however. It is just as evident in the priests who are visiting the sick and offering prayers for an end their suffering. Just before the cases of COVID-19 began to spike in Colorado, Father Fadini became very ill. He was tested for the virus, but the test came back negative. However, he believes that the Lord used the suffering he endured in his illness to prepare him for what was to come.

“It brought me to really change my way of praying and suffering, brought me to reciting some psalms to really ask the Lord for life,” Father Fadini said.

“Why do I bring this up? Because when I recovered, I resumed the visits the sick and the hospital staff,” he continued. “That experience brought me again to feel compassion for the pain of the people and I stopped being in a hurry, because when I was sick the feeling to be a burden for others was painful, while the best balm for me was to see my religious brothers and friends ‘wasting’ their time with me, who was unable to do anything for them.

“Christ is using my humanity. He is not sending a robot consecrated as a priest. With the affections that I feel for today, he sends me. It’s Christ calling me to meet Him in the person who suffers and is sharing in the cross of Christ.

“And in doing so, He is molding my heart, forming me to see that He is the true fulfillment. And because of that, I can be also a sign of hope for others.”

COMING UP: Church and state partner to carry out corporal works of mercy during pandemic and beyond

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In times of great need and crisis, we find strength in unity and collaboration, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, this truth remains within the Archdiocese of Denver.

For many years, the Archdiocese of Denver and local Colorado government officials have found ways to work together toward common goals and better serve the people of Colorado, which often includes carrying out corporal works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. And through the COVID-19 pandemic, these partnerships continue to be a crucial part of Colorado’s and the Church’s response to those in need.

The City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have a history of partnering to support people in need. During the pandemic, Mayor Michael B. Hancock and his administration have worked with the archdiocese to safeguard the homeless population and extend testing for COVID-19 to communities at higher risk of struggling with the virus.

“These types of true collaborative relationships really make the difference because you can call on your partners [and] you have established relationships that are built on trust and built on true engagement and true focus on a mutually agreed upon mission,” Mayor Hancock told the Denver Catholic. “Catholic Charities and the archdiocese have been just tremendous partners over the years with us.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver told the Denver Catholic that “the Catholic Church is motivated to care for the poor and needy by Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us.

“The coronavirus pandemic,” he added, “has highlighted this important work and underscored the essential role the Catholic Church plays in fostering a society that upholds the God-given dignity of every person.

“It has been a blessing to be able to work with the City of Denver over many years to serve these vulnerable populations.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and the Archdiocese of Denver have partnered with Mayor Michael Hancock and the City of Denver in the past to better serve people in need, and they’ve continued those collaborative efforts through the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Recently, on July 10 and July 23, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver hosted events in partnership with Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello to provide testing for COVID-19 and a mobile food pantry to the local community.

“We have been looking for opportunities to be in the communities, to do the testing, to meet people where they are. And we recognize that Latinos and African-Americans in particular have been most vulnerable to this virus,” Mayor Hancock said. “We needed to really just make sure we took the opportunities for testing to those communities.”

Then, on Aug. 6, Ascension hosted another event in collaboration with the City of Denver where the mayor’s office gave away free backpacks with school supplies, healthy food baskets, baby products, feminine hygiene products and more.

“I am very thankful for Mayor Hancock’s collaboration to help the people of Montbello,” said Father Dan Norick, pastor of Ascension Parish. “I also thank God for the people in Montbello who are caring for each other in these difficult times. May Jesus be praised!”

Mayor Hancock said that hosting these events at Ascension Parish made sense because of the established relationship the City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have developed over the years.

“When you’re looking for who you partner with during these opportunities, you turn to who’s most familiar with you and who you’ve had a trusting collaboration with,” he said. “And it just so happens the archdiocese and the parish there have been the ones that we’ve worked with over the years. So it was very natural. It’s a place where people are familiar and a place they trust.”

It’s not only during the pandemic that this partnership has been fruitful, though. A strong partnership between Samaritan House and the city has existed for quite some time, and this relationship has borne much fruit over the years. Samaritan House strives to be more than a just a homeless shelter, providing education, life skills classes and one-on-one support for its residents to empower them to break free from the cycle of poverty and support themselves independently.

In August 2017, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver cut the ribbon on the first all-women’s shelter in the city. Called Samaritan House Women’s Shelter, it follows Samaritan House’s established model of helping those experiencing hard times find a way out of poverty and ultimately, bring hope to their lives. Each night, it offers 225 beds for women who are in need of immediate shelter.

Back in April, Catholic Charities teamed up with the City of Denver and took the lead on an auxiliary women’s shelter set up at the Denver Coliseum. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Back in April, in response to the pandemic and out of a need to maintain social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver partnered to set up the Denver Coliseum as a 24/7 auxiliary emergency women’s shelter that’s that was able to accommodate up to 300 women. Catholic Charities staff took the lead at the shelter with full support from the City of Denver. The auxiliary shelter has since returned to the regular women’s shelter facility, but this collaboration between the city and Catholic Charities was crucial as cases of COVID-19 climbed in April.

“When the pandemic hit, Catholic Charities had to find a way to social distance the ladies in its Women’s Emergency Shelter,” said Mike Sinnett, Vice President of Shelters and Community Outreach. “We also had to provide them 24/7 care to honor the governor’s Stay-at-Home order and triage for the virus. Working with the City of Denver staff, we came together as a shelter community and obtained the use of the Denver Coliseum downtown. We were able to better provide social distancing, 24/7 shelter with three meals a day and other amenities, including showers and case management.

“We believe this effort with the city protected our most vulnerable community and helped prevent the spread of the virus. But more importantly, we made it safer for women experiencing homelessness during this pandemic.”

Featured image: Father Dan Norick hands out supplies during a community giveaway event hosted at Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello in conjunction with the City of Denver. (Photo provided)