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Funeral With No AttendeesDisease epidemics change human cultures in significant ways. Yersinia pestis, also called the Black Death, tore through multiple continents and claimed nearly half of Europe’s population during the 14th century. Seeing it as a punishment from God, many people turned to religious fanaticism and persecuted marginalized groups in their societies. With COVID-19 infecting over 2.4 million and killing more than 165,000 people around the globe, clergy are struggling to keep up. When ministering to people in their final hours, religious leaders, teachers, and workers face an ever-changing landscape.

Catholic Ministers: Last Rites and Video Technology

Catholic clergy and laypeople ministering to patients must balance pastoral care with their own health and safety. Catholics near death or their families may request Last Rites, which refer to three sacraments: Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and the Holy Eucharist. The Los Angeles Times explains that the Vatican has granted special dispensation for people with COVID-19: Prayers conducted over video chat have the same effect as an in-person anointing.

Some hospitals permit clergy to visit. In other cases, internal chaplaincy teams visit the sick. The Chicago Tribune mentions a team of priests from the city’s archdiocese dispatched to offer sacraments. When they’re inside patient rooms, they don personal protective equipment and anoint individuals using a disposable plastic container and swabs. If the individual is on a ventilator and cannot eat, drink, or speak, the Communion and Confession portions of the Last Rites are omitted.

Episcopalians Harness Telephone and Video Chat

Catholic clergy aren’t the only ones delivering pastoral care through technology during the COVID-19 outbreak. Episcopal News Service profiled Reverend Peter Walsh, a Connecticut priest who’s used technology when ministering to patients and their families. Walsh has prayed the Episcopalian Litany at the Time of Death over the phone and through FaceTime. Similar to the Catholic faithful, Episcopalians too ill to partake in Communion are given assurances that “all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth.”

Other Episcopalian ministers are following suit. ENS describes the Dial-a-Priest project, jointly created by two seminaries to provide words of comfort to those nearing death. Over 80 priests and deacons volunteer for this ministry, taking calls from 4 a.m. until 12 a.m. every day. Those desiring prayer can call 213-423-3600. The project’s website also offers an instructional video on how to pray the Last Rites from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.

How Muslim and Jewish Clergy Adapt

Recognizing the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Muslim and Jewish clergy are also adapting current practices to meet their communities’ needs. In a Washington Post piece, a California Muslim chaplain named Sondos Kholaki mentions using FaceTime and telephone calls to connect with the dying and their loved ones. Like many others, he finds it less ideal than in-person contact but recognizes the need for ministers to stay safe.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah has texted prayers to congregants with COVID-19. “I believe God demands of us: Be present,” she said, and being present takes on a different meaning during a global pandemic. She’s used Zoom to connect friends and family during a shiva minyan, the customary gathering of Jewish mourners after someone dies. Others in her community deliver groceries to elderly and unemployed congregants.

Unique Times, Unique Ways To Minister

“Dire times demand creative solutions,” said Reverend Walsh when discussing ministry to the sick. If wide-scale disasters test humanity’s mettle, then the COVID-19 pandemic could be our latest crucible. Recognizing adaptability and innovation in delivering pastoral care is not intended to celebrate death. Rather, it acknowledges the human creativity, perseverance, and charity that help meet others’ needs in difficult times.

Category: Funeral Loss

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