Father Michael Lankford, a priest of the Diocese who serves as a chaplain in the East Orange VA Medical Center, noted that it took time to get used to providing ministry to patients. John Batkowski photo
Father Michael Lankford, a priest of the Diocese who serves as a chaplain in the East Orange VA Medical Center, noted that it took time to get used to providing ministry to patients. John Batkowski photo
Whether making Christ present to hospitalized patients through administering the Sacraments, praying with them or offering them words of encouragement, Catholic hospital chaplains have had to find new ways to carry out their ministry of late.

Father Michael Lankford, a priest of the Diocese who serves as chaplain in the East Orange VA Medical Center, said that prior to the COVID-19 onset in March, he and others who minister in the Chaplain Services would visit every patient upon admission. They would gather information on his or her religious beliefs and practices, and then create an outreach plan.

But the pandemic “immediately stopped that kind of face-to-face visit and spiritual care,” Father Langford said. He and fellow chaplains began embracing technology as a means to communicate with patients and their families.

Going virtual “enabled us to reach so many more people,” said Marge McGinley, chaplain in Virtua Memorial Hospital, Mount Holly.

“We were able to expand our ministry beyond the hospital to other healthcare facilities because we were working remotely,” she said.

Both chaplains agreed that that taking the virtual approach had both positive and challenging points.

“It took a bit more effort,” Father Lankford admitted, especially since people who are sick and hospitalized “don’t jump onto the Internet or cell phone for a video call from, if you will, ‘cold callers.’ Of course, it was easier to make contact with those you know from previous experiences.”

McGinley added that with the involvement of other hospital workers, the virtual spiritual care was able to come alive.

“The nurses were unbelievable. They were not just healthcare workers. They became family and friends to the patients,” she said, noting that Virtua’s nursing staff assisted patients with online video conferences. “The nurses were awe inspiring.”

Ministering to Patients’ Families

In addition to serving patients who were near death or those who had died, hospital chaplains were also called on to assist family members with their concerns, especially since many families were not able to be with their loved ones when they died because of the COVID-19 hospital visitation policies.

Families also found that separation made the grieving process that much harder, the chaplains observed. While clergy always had the right to access and meet with patients coping with end-of-life scenarios at Virtua, many families did not request a priest to administer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick or bestow other blessings on their loved ones out of concern for the health of the priests and their own commitment to halting the spread of the coronavirus, McGinley added.

Moving Forward Virtually

While New Jersey has seen a decline in the number of coronavirus cases in recent weeks, the hospital chaplains plan to continue to develop their virtual ministry efforts.

“COVID-19 has made us rethink things and methods, which probably needed to happen,” said Father Lankford. “With so much now online and virtual, I see it as an addition to my ministry toolbox. I think personal visits are the most important means of ministry, but there is a wider exposure adding the virtual aspect as well.”

The livestreamed and recorded Masses that Father Lankford celebrates at the VA Medical Center, he added, “have helped in this restricted COVID-19 environment,” allowing patients to participate virtually.

“I am happy to say, although closed to the public, Holy Mass was offered daily on both VA campuses: East Orange and Lyons for the veterans, front line staff and hospital community throughout the pandemic,” he noted. 

Both Father Lankford and McGinley have noticed that their patients and their families have come to appreciate the virtual component of pastoral care.

“They are happy when we reach out to them,” McGinley said. “In the past six months of the pandemic, over the course of the thousands of calls and virtual meetings that my team and I have made, only one patient declined our spiritual care.” 

As he carries out his chaplaincy during the pandemic, Father Lankford said he is reminded of the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us.”

“Certainly, this has been an apprehensive time in our world history, and uncertainty, which illness compounds, is not easy to quell,” he said. “It is in these times especially that our faith in God gives us strength to face the unknown and even death.

“The coronavirus has been a challenge for all,” Father Lankford continued, “but, if God is for us, fears can be faced with courage, as he loves beyond all our understanding.”