By Rev. Alejandro De Jesus
Being certified in mental health chaplaincy, I always considered myself the healer or provider. It’s always the “other” who has mental ill health. The pandemic changed all that. The best of me has helped me coped with the pandemic in ways I never imagined I could do, or even thought about doing. But even the best of me could not face all that the pandemic threw at me.
I knew that God is everywhere and we can encounter God in the parking lot as much as in the church. But this truth was not powerfully revealed until the pandemic locked me down. As a priest, my liturgical ministry is celebrated with people, in close proximity. When that activity was disallowed, I felt vanquished – like a singer without a tongue, like a sprinter without legs.
Then, Palm Sunday 2020 came. My families in Manila, Philippines, in Sydney, Australia, and in a few cities in California and New Jersey all asked me to stage a Facebook Live Mass. I never thought that could be done! (Remember, this was a year ago, before I mastered virtual meetings in Zoom and Google.) What about liturgical movements during Mass? Singing – where do I get a choir? I had two housemates, but are they enough to make up a congregation?
To make long story short, I celebrated Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday with my laptop in front of me, sitting down the whole time (Jesus was even reclining at the Last Supper, remember?), and blessing those who attended my virtual Mass with holy water. I even printed a “Prayer for Spiritual Communion” for those “attending” during Communion time. This year’s Easter Sunday Mass also marked one year of virtual Facebook live Mass celebrations. Friends of friends of friends continued to attend throughout the 12 months, covering all time zones in the U.S., the Philippines, two time zones in Australia, Spain, Italy and even the Cayman Islands. All in all, at the height of the pandemic, at an average of 3.5 persons per Facebook address, we probably reached some 700 people in “attendance.”
Aside from canceling liturgical celebrations in the VA chapels, our local VA system did not allow Catholic chaplains to visit COVID-19 patients, not even to anoint and bless dying veterans. Now that was a real shocker to me! The very essence and sacramentality of anointing – the touching and anointing with oil, the prayers, the laying on of hands – all vanished with a stroke of the pen! Did leadership have the authority to limit our ministry? Could we find some way around it?
It didn’t help that we continue to read about heroic deeds by other Catholic priests in their ministry to COVID-19 patients, how creative and valiant their efforts were, practically envious of the support they were getting. Helpless as one COVID patient after another died without the sacraments, and greatly saddened by the prohibition, I was joined by the other chaplains as we emotionally expressed our powerlessness together. It wasn’t until the surge subsided, months later, that we were allowed to anoint again.
Before I received the vaccine in December, I lived in constant fear of being infected. Ministering in a medical center only made it worse. Everyone looked like a possible carrier. It’s similar to the concept of “guilty until proven innocent:” everyone is COVID-infected until they get negative test results.
Being a hugger myself, I valued that specific expression of care and support. That, too, has to go, sadly. In ministry, hugging and “abrazo” communicate a depth of affirmation that words can hardly start to describe. True, we have invented virtual hugs, which help communicate the message. But, then again, it isn’t the same.
A comedian recently remarked, “Does God hear your prayers when you’re muted?” Even the language in our conversation about faith and religion has changed. But rather than impoverishing it, the pandemic has only enriched it, even with appropriate humor to match.
At the one-year mark of the pandemic, there’s no way John 12:24-25 can make sense to me again except from an awakened perspective: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” This pandemic has ended many practices that I find meaningful and affirming, but they are some of the many deaths I have to live with from now on.
I feel a little more confident that the future is not all melancholic, miserable or pitiful. Lessons were learned, forcing us towards deeper reflections on life’s possibilities and dangers. I share other peoples’ thoughts about the pandemic as an ordeal that led to an awakening, on wondering how different our lives have become and embracing the difference.
Rev. Alejandro De Jesus, PhD, BCC, is certified in the NACC, NCVACC, and NAVAC and has specialty certification in hospice and palliative care and in mental health. He is the chaplain for hospice & palliative care and the Community Living Center at the South Texas VA Health Care System in San Antonio, TX.