Pandemic changing ways priests provide pastoral care

Father Ed Steiner, pastor of the Cathedral, blesses the lectionary with incense before reading the Gospel during Holy Thursday Mass. The pandemic has forced priests to draw on all their skills and experience to provide pastoral care for their parishioners, Father Steiner said. “There’s nothing any seminary in the world could do that could prepare us for this.” Photo by Andy Telli

The restrictions people are living under during the COVID-19 pandemic have not only swept away gatherings of the faithful for the public celebrations of Masses and other services, but they are also squeezing the ways priests can offer pastoral care to their parishioners.

“The challenge is your instinct is to do something” when a parishioner is struggling with a family issue, or a loved one is sick, said Father Ed Steiner, the pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Like his brother priests in the Diocese of Nashville, he has had to find new ways to offer the spiritual and pastoral support his parishioners need.

“You can’t visit people in their homes and or have them come to the church to talk,” Father Steiner said, leaving telephone conversations as the next best option. 

“They are greatly appreciative of the phone calls,” Father Steiner said, but it’s not the same as when a priest can look into the eyes of a parishioner he is counseling. “There’s so much we say (with our facial expressions) when we look at each other.”

The pandemic is limiting other ways the Church supports the faithful.

“The hospital visits are really interesting” as medical facilities try to protect patients and health care workers from a spread of the virus, Father Steiner said. “You are a stranger in a strange land.”

He, Father Gervan Menezes, the chaplain at University Catholic, and Father Jayd Neeley, the pastor at St. Mary’s Church downtown, are the only three priests who are authorized to visit patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where most of Nashville’s COVID-19 patients are being treated.

The priests are not allowed to visit any of the COVID-19 patients, and they have to take special precautions to see other patients, Father Steiner said. 

What used to be a routine check on a patient to see how they and their family are doing is no longer allowed, he said. “You can only go to see someone who’s dying” or is about to undergo a serious surgery, Father Steiner added.

If a patient needs a priest, the hospital typically will contact the diocesan Pastoral Care Director Deacon Joe Holzmer, who then reaches out to the priests who might be available.

“Initially, I didn’t need any (personal protective equipment),” Father Steiner said. But lately, he’s been required to wear a mask and gloves.

He, like all the other employees and volunteers at Vanderbilt, are required to go through a screening before they are allowed into the hospital. His temperature is checked and he is asked a series of questions to determine if he is at risk of having the virus.

“Every employee has to go through that every time they leave the building and come back in,” Father Steiner said.

After the screening process, Father Steiner sanitizes his hands and is escorted to the patient’s room, where he anoints them.

The patient’s family is not allowed in the room for the anointing, Father Steiner said. “It’s hard on the family. They want to be there in the worst way.”

In one case, he had to perform the anointing over the telephone. The nurse put a telephone in a plastic bag and held it to the patient’s ear while Father Steiner recited the prayers. “He understood why I could not come to the hospital, but he was intensely grateful for that,” he said of the patient. 

Hospital officials have shared with Father Steiner the protocols they have for all their employees and volunteers for after they leave. When they go home, they are encouraged to change their clothes before entering the house, leave their shoes outside, and wash their clothes immediately, he explained. “They suggested we immediately take a shower.”

He understands and appreciates all the precautions. “If I come out of the hospital with COVID, I live with four other guys, we’re all going to have it,” Father Steiner said of the other priests who live in the Cathedral rectory.

The pandemic has also forced limitations on some of the other normal activities in a parish.

Funeral Masses are limited to the immediate family only, Father Steiner said. “The funeral homes are under very strict regulations,” he explained. Only 10 people can be present, including the priest and the funeral director.

“I’ve only done one Mass,” Father Steiner said. “It was about as simple a funeral Mass as you could have, and then we were off to the cemetery.”

Although the funeral Mass is limited, once the pandemic restrictions have been lifted, families can arrange a memorial Mass for their loved ones, Father Steiner said.

He has conducted a handful of graveside services. For those, only the most immediate members of the family are allowed under the tent by the grave, he said. Everyone else must practice social distancing.

“I did just a little bit more than we would normally do at the cemetery,” Father Steiner said. “With all of these we will have a memorial service later.”

The pandemic has put a halt to all baptisms, unless an infant’s condition is critical and they are in the hospital. “We’ve just simply said, ‘No, you’ve got to wait,’” Father Steiner said.

It’s to protect the baby as much as the priest, Father Steiner said. “I don’t want to find out a week later the child is sick.”

Most people are understanding, although some have expressed concerns that the baby might die before they can be baptized. Father Steiner’s answer is, “If you think that baby is going to die, you baptize it.”

In extreme circumstances in which a person’s life is in danger, the Church allows anyone to perform a baptism. All that is required is the will to do what the Church does when she baptizes and to apply the Trinitarian baptismal formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Another aspect of normal parish life that has been disrupted by the restrictions on gatherings of people has been weddings.

“I had six weddings on my calendar from mid-March through the middle of May,” Father Steiner said. “All of the brides have postponed their weddings.”

The Cathedral is a popular location for weddings. “Right after Easter, it’s two a weekend for weeks on end,” Father Steiner said.

“You know they’re frustrated. You can hear it in their voices,” Father Steiner said of the couples who have been forced to postpone their weddings. “I get their frustration.”

“But absolutely no one has expressed any anger toward us,” he added. “Everybody has been extremely nice.”

The priests at the Cathedral have continued to hear confessions, but with the proper social distancing, Father Steiner said. Everyone must be behind the screen when they make their confession and the kneelers are four feet from the screen. On the other side, the priest is two feet from the screen.

The doors are kept open so people don’t have to touch the door handles.

The pandemic has forced priests to draw on all their skills and experience to provide pastoral care for their parishioners, Father Steiner said. “There’s nothing any seminary in the world could do that could prepare us for this.”