The toll of COVID-19 on clergy

A priest friend works in a busy parish. The parish has three churches in a densely populated area, one of the churches is across the road from a large hospital. He sent me a video of mortuary vans lined up to collect bodies at the hospital. That week he did seven COVID-19 “funerals”.

“Funerals” because they are not really funerals. I have done them too. You are only allowed 10-15 minutes at the crematorium. It is heartless and cold. Dressed in PPE, behind a mask and gloves, you pray the prayers of commendation and sprinkle the remains. The coffin, marked “Caution. Hazardous Remains”, is quickly removed. There is little time to mourn. Consoling the loved ones is impossible. There is a good chance that some of the loved ones present will be positive too as they have had contact with their dead relative. 

Churches are no longer allowed to gather – and rightly so. We are living in a pandemic and people are dying. We must protect life. My friend now spends his days alone, cooking for people in his parish who do not be the means to feed themselves. Many have lost their jobs. They have no income. Others are sick and cannot leave their homes – sometimes a whole family have contracted COVID. Luckily there are still donors who give him meat and vegetables to cook. He has swapped his clerical attire, literally, for an apron. He is doing his best to respond to the need. 

Most priests become ministers so that they can accompany others, help them, share in their joys and sorrows. Their presence is vital in the day to day life of the people they serve. As priests, our daily tasks are to administer sacraments, help the poor, visit homes, lend a listening ear, visit the sick, and manage our parishes by doing things like looking after the maintenance of our places of worship. For months now, priests have not been able to do what they naturally do and feel deeply called to do. The daily reality has fast become only dealing with poverty, sickness and death.   

There are financial worries too. Since March 2020, many churches have lost most of their income. Some priests are struggling themselves to survive. They too, have lost their income. 

For many priests, the shift to online masses was hard. Besides the fact that it seems foreign to Catholic liturgy, which is very tangible, and that people cannot receive communion, many parishes don’t have the financial resources to stream online. Many parishioners do not have access to data and are cut off even if the parish is streaming. 

When churches reopened after the last closure priests were stressed about the attrition rate: people simply did not participate online or return to church when public worship was allowed again. A report by the Barna Group (which conducts studies into the state of the church) revealed that 32% of Christians say they have done nothing about church since the beginning of COVID. There are many factors to consider. However, the fact remains that many congregations have shrunk.

The toll that the pandemic is taking on minsters – and the aftermath – should not be underestimated. Many are tired, overwhelmed, lonely, stressed, conflicted and fearful. Many priests have poor support systems. So, when you remember frontline workers – as we should – remember to pray for those ministers who are on the frontline. They need it.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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