New Norm for Catholics in Hospitals

Ah, the good old days, where we could gather with family and friends, go to concerts or sports events, eat out at restaurants or bars, attend Mass in a crowded church, or have a priest drop by your hospital room for a visit and/or to administer the Sacraments.  Then Covid-19 hit in 2020, and life as we knew it ground to a halt.  Suddenly we were faced with new restrictive rules that promoted isolation and led to a great deal of fear.  Thankfully, over time, these rules have been relaxed or even lifted in many areas, allowing us to return to some form of normalcy.  However, there is one area where these restrictions are only slightly eased and it may never return to the “way it was.”  I’m speaking of hospitals and other health-care facilities.

For the past few decades, the Diocese of Arlington has agreed to assign a priest to be the full-time volunteer Catholic chaplain at Inova Fairfax Medical Center, the largest hospital campus in Northern Virginia.  Since 2015, Fr. Stefan Starzynski has been that full-time Catholic chaplain and is currently supported by Fr. Sunny Joseph, Fr. Tony Appiah and Sr. Leonida (Nida) Eguilos, S.N.D.S.  Prior to 2020, the chaplains and a group of selected extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist would get a daily list of Catholic patients within Inova Fairfax and walk around the medical buildings, visiting these patients and bringing them Holy Communion.  The priests would also be available for other sacraments such as Anointing of the Sick, Confession, and even Baptism or Confirmation if required.

Restrictive rules for priests & hospital visits after March 2020

However, in March 2020, all of that changed suddenly with the outbreak of Covid-19.  Thankfully, Fairfax Hospital viewed Fr. Stefan, Fr. Sunny, Fr. Tony and Sr. Nida as essential staff members, even though they are technically unpaid “volunteers” at Fairfax Hospital.  However, the extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers were no longer allowed to enter the hospital.  Like other staff members, Fr. Stefan had to be fitted for the appropriate attire (mask, face shield, “hazmat” suit) so that he could enter a Covid-room if requested.  He would often tell people that he “felt like I was one of the few priests in the United States that was continuing to do what I was doing without any change” during the lockdowns.

The hospital put into place other restrictive regulations as well, including new requirements for chaplains.  Instead of getting a list of Catholic patients that the chaplains could visit for that day, it is now required that a patient, or family member, must specifically request a visit from a Catholic chaplain.  The hospital no longer allows the priests to wander “room to room” and they will not accept requests from a friend or other non-related person, such as a parish priest.  Sadly, this new rule reduces the number of patients that Fr. Stefan can visit and puts him in a difficult position: “I feel like I’m walking a tightrope.  On the one hand, I would love to visit as many patients as possible, but on the other hand, our new policies make it difficult in that the patients have to first specifically request to see me.”  If he breaks any of these rules, then the hospital has the authority to revoke his clearance to be at the hospital as a volunteer.

It is even more problematic when Fr. Stefan is requested to baptize a baby, often in the NICU where rules are even stricter for safety reasons.  Sometimes, he is only given the baby’s name but no room number.  Unfortunately, hospital records do not always include the baby’s name and Father cannot just wander through the NICU, looking for a specific baby.  It is much better when one or both parents specifically request Father via the Chaplaincy office, and are present at the hospital to confirm that Fr. Stefan is baptizing the correct child and to provide the information necessary for the baptismal certificate.

Although Inova Fairfax Hospital has relaxed some of their general visitor restrictions over the past few months, they are still enforcing this requirement that the patient or family member must request a priest before Fr. Stefan can enter the room.  This makes it very difficult for Fr. Stefan whenever he is contacted by a fellow priest, asking him to visit a friend or parishioner who is in Fairfax hospital.  Father (or the original requestor) must first contact the patient or family member to get their approval to make a visit, which can sometimes be hard if no room number is given.

Even when a request comes in, it is not always guaranteed that the patience wants to see him.  Just this past week, another priest asked Fr. Stefan to visit someone in Fairfax Hospital.  Luckily, Fr. Stefan was able to find the room and talk to a family member outside of the patient’s room to get permission to visit.  However, when he entered the room, he discovered that the patient was not Catholic and did not want to receive Anointing of the Sick or any other sacrament.  Thankfully, the patient was understanding about the mix-up but it could have turned out differently for the worse.  If the patient had been upset about Fr. Stefan’s visit, and Father had not gotten permission from the family member, then this would have been reported to the hospital and Fr. Stefan would have been at risk of losing his volunteer badge.

This restrictive policy is not just being implemented at Inova Fairfax Hospital, though.  In Northern Virginia, almost all hospitals are limiting how and when a parish priest may come into the hospital to administer Anointing of the Sick, Holy Communion, and the Last Rites.  In August 2020, the Diocese of Arlington filed a complaint against Mary Washington Healthcare in Virginia, stating that the hospital would not permit a priest to provide Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to a COVID-positive patient who was dying and whose family specifically requested that the priest come in.  Although the Diocese won this case and the priest was allowed to enter before the patient died, various hospitals still make it difficult for a parish priest to visit his sick flock.

Even now, many hospitals will not allow any priest who has not received the Covid “vaccination” to enter, and most, if not all, hospitals still require that the patient or a family member specifically request a priest to come in.  In July 2021, a priest received a list of 20+ parishioners who were patients at a hospital in Frederick County, VA and he wanted to be able to go in and bring Communion to them.  However, the hospital informed him that he would not be allowed to simply go from room to room, but instead could only visit those patients who specifically requested his presence.  In another instance, a priest recently went to visit his mother in a different hospital but was initially not allowed to enter because it was outside of “visiting hours.”  Thankfully, he was eventually allowed into the hospital but only because he threatened to take legal action.

What is a Catholic to do in this new environment?

FIRST, try to receive the Sacraments (Anointing, Confession, Eucharist) BEFORE going into the hospital.  If you know ahead of time that you will be entering a hospital for surgery or other serious treatments, then call your local parish and make an appointment with a priest before you are scheduled to be at the hospital.  If you are not able to get to your own parish, you can also find a list of all the health-care facilities in the Diocese of Arlington, and the parishes that serve these facilities, at the following link:  https://padrepioministry.org/table-of-parishes/.

SECOND, if you unexpectantly find yourself in the hospital (e.g. on an emergency basis) and did not have a chance to receive the sacraments, then you (or a family member on your behalf) must specifically ask for a priest to visit you.  You can either call that hospital’s Chaplaincy office during normal workhours (usually M-F, 9 am – 5 pm) or ask a nurse to call the local parish priest directly if it is outside of office hours or on weekends.  Even if you state that you are a Catholic on the admittance form, no one from the hospital will call a priest unless you specifically request it.  YOU MUST NOW BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE!!

THIRD, if you are a friend or parish priest of the patient, then you need to make sure the patient or family member know that THEY must specifically request a priest.  For example, when a person lets you know that they or someone else is in the hospital, you must tell that person to have the patient or family member make a specific request for a priest either through the Chaplaincy office or a nurse.  It is no longer good enough for a fellow priest to call the Catholic chaplain or assigned parish priest on behalf of the patient – the hospital will not allow the visiting priest to enter unless the request came directly from the patient or family member.  It is also important to make sure that the PATIENT is open and willing to a visit from a priest.  Even when family members are Catholic, some patients are not Catholic or may not be interested in receiving the Sacraments.

What if you are not able to see a priest?

If you are facing a serious illness or medical procedure, then ideally you would want to receive the sacraments of healing (Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick) and if possible, the Holy Eucharist, to strengthen you during this time of suffering.  However, we don’t live in an ideal world and there will be times when you may not be able to get these sacraments.  One of the saddest realities of 2020 is that many people died alone in hospitals and other health-care facilities without receiving the Sacraments or even having family members with them.  While access to patients in hospitals is improving, there are still situations where a priest cannot be there to anoint the sick in a timely manner (if at all).

The good news is that God is not limited to only working through the sacraments.  While God has chosen to bind Himself to the sacraments as the primary means for us to receive His Grace, He can also impart grace to those who are properly disposed to receiving it but do not have an opportunity to actually receive the sacraments (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257 and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 64 a. 7 and III q. 68 a. 2).  The key here is to be properly disposed to receiving His Grace.  Often this means having a true repentance for your sins, a firm resolution to avoid sin in the future, and a trustful surrender to the Love and Mercy of God.

If you can’t participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, then say a heartfelt Act of Contrition with the sincere desire to avoid any future sin and go to Confession as soon as you are able.  Instead of receiving Jesus sacramentally in the Eucharist, say a Spiritual Communion as often as you desire.  And if you cannot be physically anointed, then call down God’s graces upon you through powerful prayers such as the Holy Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and other prayers and novenas.  You can find many of these prayers at our website: www.padrepioministry.org.

In conclusion, if you find yourself facing a serious illness or medical procedure, then do your best to receive the healing sacraments BEFORE entering the hospital by making an appointment with a priest.  If you do end up in the hospital and have not yet received the sacraments, then you or a family member need to be your own advocate and call for a priest to come in.  If you are not sure who to call, then ask a nurse to call the hospital’s Chaplaincy office for you, since most Chaplaincy offices will have the contact information for a local priest.  If for some reason, the priest is not able to visit you in time, then say the prayers recommended above and trust in the Divine Physician.

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