By Lydia O’Kane
Along with the thousands of healthcare professionals who are working tirelessly on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are also the unsung hospital Chaplains who are providing spiritual care to both patients and staff.
They are there for the Sacraments, support, or a simple chat as patients, their families and hospital staff alike go through these unchartered waters.
During this crisis, many priests have volunteered to become Chaplains at a number of temporary hospitals that have been constructed to deal with the influx of Coronavirus cases.
One of those is Fr John Waters, a priest in the Archdiocese of Birmingham in the UK, and a collaborator with Vatican Radio’s English Section.
He will be based at Birmingham's temporary National Health Service (NHS) run Nightingale hospital, which has a 5,000-bed capacity facility and is situated in the city’s National Exhibition Centre.
The hospital, which was built in eight days, is due to start receiving patients in the next week, and the Chaplains who are to be based there have already been through their orientation.
Heeding the call
Fr John was ordained to the priesthood just last year, and said that when the call went out for new Chaplains, he had no hesitation in volunteering.
“More than half the reason why I joined the priesthood… was to be there to accompany people through all sorts of situations, whatever life throws at us, and when the call went out for new Chaplains to be assigned to the Nightingale hospital… I responded very enthusiastically, I was very keen to get involved.”
Providing spiritual care
He explained that there will be around nine or ten Chaplains who will be on a rota system at the Nightingale hospital. They will be physically on site for the working day, for two days at a time, and the Chaplains will remain on call during the night to be called out should someone need anointing.
Their primary role will be to provide the Sacraments, primarily Anointing of the Sick, but they will also be there as a support, or as Fr John puts it, “someone to lean on for the real frontline workers; the doctors and the nurses of the NHS who will be putting in shifts that are roughly 12 or 13 hours long.”
Fr John and all the Chaplains at the Nightingale will be working in a very sterilized environment, and they too will have to wear protective clothing which will include a surgical gown and mask. Anything brought into the sterilized area for sacramental care will also have to remain in the ward.
Accompaniment in isolation
For the patients who are fighting the Coronavirus, the wards in hospitals like the Nightingale are their battlefields. As they fight this invisible foe, they are also prevented from seeing their families and friends for fear of contamination. Speaking about this aspect of the disease, Fr John said, “this is where people are going to feel the effects of this war on Covid, much more so, because they can’t be physically by their loved one’s side in their last moments to reassure them, and to pray for them…I was ordained a priest to be of service, and so I will be there with people in those low moments; if that’s the only thing I can do, that’s the only thing I will do.”
The new Chaplain underlined that nothing really prepares you for something like this. Recalling his orientation day at the Nightingale hospital with his fellow Chaplains, he said that on seeing the hundreds if not thousands of beds set up to receive Covid patients the general feeling was “Oh my God”.
Wisdom and advice
As he begins this journey as a hospital Chaplain in these most challenging of times, Fr John said he is falling back on some advice given to him by his very first Spiritual Director at the Seminary, who assured him that ‘God never asks us to do anything impossible’, but he challenges us to go further than we think we can, and discover new strengths and new depths of character within ourselves.