Priests bringing hope, comfort to COVID patients


Pastoral Care Team helps lessen fears, isolation of the hospitalized


When COVID started claiming its first victims in the United States, they were suffering alone in hospital rooms. Families and friends couldn’t visit. Their only interaction was with doctors and nurses. Their only visitors were via FaceTime and phone.

The Diocese of Richmond saw the need for ministry and sent out a notice looking for priests willing to visit the sick, to offer comfort and Communion, the sacrament of reconciliation and the sacraments for the dying.

Though some hospitals wouldn’t even allow priests to visit, others would, under strict medical directives and the donning of several layers of PPE.

Father Rene Castillo

Two of the first priests to be assigned were Father René Castillo, pastor of Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach, and Father Gino Rossi, pastor of the St. Peter, St. John and St. Patrick cluster in Richmond.

A priest for 31 years, Father Castillo worked as a hospital chaplain in the Hampton Roads area before being assigned to Holy Family. With this experience, he felt he was a good fit for the COVID-19 Pastoral Care Team.

Father Rossi, a priest for seven years, also had experience visiting the sick in hospitals, serving at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond. He said his experience, youth and good health made him a good candidate for the program. Plus, he saw it as a learning opportunity.

“God is always bringing us along, helping us to become better and more capable ministers,” he said. “I need all the experiences and training I can get!”

Father Gino Rossi

With masks, gowns, goggles, gloves and God, these men began their work. In the face of a pandemic, they were unafraid.

“No matter the situation, there is always hope for us as Christians,” said Father Rossi. “Christ conquered death and all sickness. When I encounter someone who is sick or dying, I try to remind them they have nothing to fear, that God is in control and will take good care of them.”

The priests call each patient by name. They speak with them, not just to them. They connect as they pray with them and offer them the Eucharist and reconciliation. They anoint them and give them the sacraments for the dying if needed.

Although they must limit their time with patients in the interest of safety, one of their goals is to make sure those alone in their hospital rooms don’t feel lonely.

Father Castillo said this ministry is “to remind them that God is with them and is accompanying them in their illness. God wants to strengthen them and to heal their souls and, if it is God’s will, their bodies, too.”

He recalled how one COVID patient was an elderly woman, isolated except for the nurses who came in and out of her room. What made her situation unique was that one of her nurses happened to be her granddaughter.

Knowing her granddaughter was there to help take care of her physically also helped her mentally, Father Castillo said.

“It was a blessing for the patient, and the presence of her granddaughter gave her assurance that she was not alone in the company of nurses and others who were strangers to her,” he said.

COVID-19 has not just affected those who fall ill, but others as well. Being a family member or friend of someone who is sick and not being able to visit is also a struggle.

Even those who don’t have a loved one with COVID-19, but who read the harrowing stories and see the numbers on the news can become depressed or anxious. Quarantine has taken its toll on many.

“I think many people whose faith has been negatively affected may not even be patients who have contracted COVID, but are people who are simply isolated and afraid,” said Father Rossi.

In times of sickness and fear, some people tend to hold tight to their faith. Even those who had turned away from God sometimes come back. Priests have seen this firsthand.

“We reach out to God when we are sick because ‘there are no atheists in foxholes,’” said Father Rossi. “We are self-reliant and self-confident often until we experience something that shows us we are not and we need a Savior.”

Father Castillo spoke of the comfort the program has brought to those suffering.

“Ministry to the sick is ministry to Christ himself,” he said. “It witnesses to the care that God has for all, especially the sick, and in our case as priests, an embodiment of the shepherd concerned for his flock. It brings spiritual strength and peace to them; it offers the possibility to returning to God’s loving embrace.”

As restrictions have loosened, some hospitals are permitting more priests to visit patients. While vaccines are being developed and tested, Father Castillo is optimistic.

“I have tons of hope! What is there to fear?” Father Castillo said. “This will pass. And God will use any and all tragedy and difficulty experienced during this global pandemic to help more people to know him, love him and make his kingdom more present in the world. We, as God’s faithful, get the privilege of watching him do his amazing work. I am grateful for that.”

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