By Stephen Kokx
In west Michigan, two hospitals are no longer allowing pastors to visit sick patients for any reason.
GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan, March 26, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — As diagnosed coronavirus cases continue to grow, hospitals across the United States are beginning to take the unnerving step of banning priests and pastors from visiting persons suffering from COVID-19.
Facilities in Washington, Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and Kansas are, in various capacities, limiting chaplain access to patients.
The most common reasons that hospitals are giving for the prohibition is the need to prevent the spread of the virus by guests who may be unaware they have it and who may acquire it after coming in close proximity with infected patients.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
“Chaplains are trained healthcare professionals,” Brent Bond told Christianity Today last week.
Bond is the senior director of chaplaincy for the North American Mission Board, an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Many have gone through extensive training to be prepared for situations like this.”
But that training apparently isn’t enough for two hospitals in western Michigan that have implemented what many will likely see as overly restrictive if not anti-Christian guidelines for visitors.
According to a public statement released yesterday by Bishop David Walkowiak of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Spectrum Health and Metro Health Hospital have banned priests from entering their properties “under any circumstances.”
Metro Hospital is affiliated with the University of Michigan healthcare system and Spectrum Health is not-for-profit health system based in Grand Rapids.
In his letter, Walkowiak writes, “Unfortunately, the Church is unable to provide Catholics with the sacraments in a number of our local hospitals. It is sad that these conditions exist in these times when Catholics need and desire to receive the sacraments and gain their consolation and strength.”
Spectrum has already removed the entire pastoral care department from having an onsite presence.
The Catholic hospital system in the area, Mercy Heath St. Mary’s, will not issue such a ban, Walkowiak added.
“Mercy Health St. Mary’s Hospital will permit priests to celebrate the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and Viaticum for the dying only. The staff priest chaplain, Father Joachim, will handle all other anointings and regular pastoral care.”
Catholic teaching holds that persons who are extremely ill and/or possibly near death are in great need of spiritual assistance. The Catholic Church provides Catholics who are at those stages of life with what it calls Last Rites, a sacrament that, in effect, strengthens the soul and prepares it to enter into eternal life. This can only be performed in-person and not over the phone or computer.
Spectrum and Metro’s decision to ban clergy from entering its facilities is somewhat puzzling given that on its website Spectrum says pastoral care and spiritual support are important parts of who they are. A search for the term “chaplain” on the website of Metro Health, on the other hand, found no such statement of belief, though the hospital does employ at least one spiritual care chaplain.
LifeSite reached out to both hospitals earlier today for comment.
Rev. Nathaniel Johnson, a United Methodist minister, is the current manager of the Pastoral Care & Bereavement department at Spectrum Health. He has been with the hospital for eight years.
Though unable to give details about who made the decision to ban clergy from visiting sick patients, he did say that they are “reconsidering” it. He then informed LifeSite that he would forward our questions to persons who could better answer them. LifeSite has yet to receive a response.
Metro Health was not as accommodating.
A staff member in the spiritual care department told LifeSite that he would forward our questions to Kate Veenstra, the director of case management and social work. Unwilling to wait for Veenstra to respond, LifeSite called the hospital’s operator and was put through directly to her office.
A woman named Cindy answered the phone and told LifeSite that she could take a message and that Veenstra would respond later.
LifeSite explained that it wasn’t interested in leaving a message and was seeking immediate clarification on whether the hospital was not allowing Catholic priests on its property.
Cindy responded, “I’m going to transfer you to her … phone … actually … um … her secretary is out today and so I guess what I’d like for you to do is call back on Monday.”
LifeSite said, “I’m not going to be able to do that. … I’m on a deadline for today and this is a big story and I think we deserve an answer from the hospital because people are dying and they need to know what they can do if they go to your hospital. So I need to speak with Kate today.”
“Um … well,” Cindy stammered, “she is in meetings throughout the day so I cannot promise that she’s going to call you back so I will transfer you to her phone number and then we’ll go from there.”
“Great, thank you.”
Veenstra picked up the phone within seconds, answering with a cheerful, “Hi!”
“Kate, I thought you were in meetings all day?” LifeSite asked.
“Hi, who is this?”
“This is Stephen Kokx. I’m a journalist trying to get some answers. I work for LifeSiteNews … do you have a minute to talk?”
“No, nope, I don’t!”
“You don’t have one minute?”
“People are concerned that people are dying at your hospital and they can’t see a Catholic priest. Do you think that’s a good thing or not?”
After five seconds of silence, LifeSite asked, “Will you abide by that policy?”
Veenstra immediately hung up the phone.
Earlier today, Metro Hospital tweetd that only under “special circumstances” will one approved visitor be allowed in situations involving pediatric, maternity or end of life patients.
Whether that means there is now an exception for priests or clergy remains unclear, as no one is to be allowed in their adult Intensive Care Unit.
For respectful comments only, please contact the following:
U of M Metro Health
(616) 252-7200 (operator)
(616) 252-5033 (media relations)
(616) 252-5033 (media relations)
(888) 989-7999 (General line)
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