Fr Frankie Mulgrew is a parish priest and hospital chaplain. We spoke with him about delivering spiritual care and support during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past few weeks the phrase ‘self-isolation’ has entered our vocabulary. It’s a rather dry and formal term for effectively avoiding all those things that give purpose to our lives, contact with friends, neighbours and our wider families.
So where do we look for psychological, indeed spiritual support, as we confront not only the isolation, but also the possibility of ours, or another’s imminent mortality?
We spoke to Father Frankie Mulgrew, a parish priest at St. Mary’s, Salford and a hospital chaplain at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust to find out more.
Every day, in one form or another, he does his best to accompany people as they face their difficulties; either suffering from the virus; or caring for someone with it. Our conversation with Fr Frankie took place during April 2020.
You can listen to our conversation with Fr Frankie here, or read a transcription of our interview further down this page.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales has published some interim guidance about COVID-19 and the ministry to the sick.
It is not possible to visit hospitals at this time because of the infectious nature of COVID-19.
With this in mind, it is important that when you enter hospital and if you are a person of faith, you request that your details or those of a relative be passed onto the chaplaincy team.
For Catholics, let the staff know that you would like a visit from the Catholic chaplain if you or a relative are in a critical state and would like to receive the last rites.
Q. Father Frankie, what changes have the new isolation rules forced you to make in your work, and in your ministry as a chaplain?
A. “We have personal protective equipment, and then we basically take the lead from the hospital – if they are happy for us to go into a particular ward – then we go in and minister. But yes, we’ve got to have the gear on, and even with personal equipment – there’s still the eyes, hopefully you can still display a message of eyes of love.
“But it’s tricky, we’re under difficult circumstances, it’s letting people know that they’re not alone really. And from the priest’s perspective; it’s that God never leaves them. I think that’s the key thing, that he never leaves them; and that he always joins them in their pain; and in their difficulties and in the highs and the lows; in the mess; that God’s not going anywhere.
“And in this particular situation it is to try and give the hope that God loves them, no matter what, in life and death, God is there for them.”
Q. I suppose your hope as a chaplain is that you can accompany people through their physical and emotional difficulties at this time. But how do you do that now that there is an actual physical barrier between you?
A. “I actually had a phone call the other day from our care home. It was from the daughter of a woman who was very ill – her mother had a few conditions and it was also suspected that she had coronavirus. After speaking to the daughter, I then spoke to the mum, and we chatted and prayed together. Sadly she did die and went home to the Lord, and obviously it’s a big bereavement for the daughter, but also a joyous time for her as she’s been called on to heaven.
“The daughter did say to me that her mum had got a lot from that prayer over the phone, and I was a bit taken aback thinking it was just a prayer over the phone as I’m used to going in and seeing them, and giving them the last rites, and then the prayers and sitting with them.
“But she said that it had made such an impact and difference, and I think that’s it in these times. I know we’re constricted, confined – but I don’t think God’s love is ever confined, or ever constricted. And so I think, yes, the power of God’s love is out there. And I think it’s reaching people, even indeed despite the difficult situations.”
Q. And when we talk about spiritual needs, what exactly are we talking about?
A. “Yes, there’s a few things to consider… The greatest message we can give anybody is the message that they’re loved, and to know they’re not alone, and that they’re loved enough that someone wants to be sat next to them in this difficulty, wants to stand with them on this front line. So I think that’s really key.
“From my place, I would always offer them prayer support and talk about a message of hope, because that is the role of a priest. As much as I hope life isn’t ended, it goes on, it’s the change of address. But then as well, there’s also other areas we can put them in touch with, Marie Curie for example, is obviously helping with people’s emotional wellbeing at this time, with their links to counsellors, psychologists and social workers. So whatever your particular faith is, we can be in a position as well to help, to bring that particular chaplain in for whatever their faith may be.”
Q. And how do you accompany someone caring for a loved one at home, or how do you accompany those carers doing the same thing in care homes and hospices?
A. “I’ve been speaking with the team around me in the parish and we’ve been reaching out by phone to the more vulnerable members of our community. It’s about not losing sight of them, the actual carers as well, so I’ve tried to offer support to them and maybe a little prayer or word of encouragement. I think it’s difficult and I think it’s really important for them not to feel isolated. They can ring or be in online contact with people that can support them through this difficult time. As the saying goes no person is an island. So it’s just really important as well that they know that they’re not alone in this.
“But I think as well… if they’re with someone of faith, it’s a real key for them at this time too. I remember as a hospital chaplain even when you just greeted a patient with a smile, it meant so much, even just meeting and greeting. Mother Teresa used to talk about that… a smile is like a sign of love; it lets a person know that they’re loved; they’re accepted in that moment. So even just a gentle smile, a kindly smile makes such a big impact. To support the carers, it’s about giving them words of encouragement and letting them know that they’re not alone, and that other people are going through it, and that they can do this… just to give them that sort of support.”
Q. And what about those you meet on the front line, doctors, nurses, medical professionals, not all of them Catholic of course?
A. “Yes, naturally I’m put in positions where I’m in conversation with people that are believers, and people that aren’t believers, it’s about being there for people in all walks of life. And with regards to nurses and doctors and those that are really on the front line, there’s almost like a level of accountability, because we’re not going to get through this without working together as a team.
“So it’s sort of strange, as in we’re meant to be isolated, but we’re also meant to work together as a community, as this big human family, in order to contain this thing, because we’re not going to get out the other end unless we do. Everybody has a part to play in this.”
Q. And in the end, where do you draw your support and hope from?
A. “It’s an honour, it is a great honour, to even play your part and in whatever little capacity, to be there. But the real heroes are the doctors and nurses at this time. But I think, where does my hope come from as a Catholic priest? I think my hope comes from love. Yes, love. Pope Benedict said a number of years ago we’re made for love, to receive love and to give love, and we’re particularly made to receive it from a God who never leaves us, I think that’s really critical as well. A message of the gospel is that God never leaves us. It’s never too late to do the right thing. It’s never too late to turn to him and seek his mercy and seek his love.
“And I think that’s really key, that’s what I would be holding onto these days, basically the dawn comes just after the darkest part of the night. The dawn is coming. No night lasts forever before the sun rises. And when it rises, boy, does it shine brightly.”
Q. What about you Frankie? What about fears for your own protection?
A. “When we go to anoint people now, we need our personal protective equipment and we don’t anoint with the thumb. We have to use a cotton bud with our holy oil, and we anoint them the head and the hands. and people are giving us good advice on where we can minister, and where we can’t minister. And we’re taking the advice of the care home and of the hospital wards, and if they’re saying it’s safe for us to go in…
“Three of my parishioners have contracted this. And that’s where it becomes very real as well. Because it was already real, and it goes on to Neverland level real, because your heart just goes out to them and you’re just trying to do what you can through prayer and through speaking to them. In these days I see that we’re like a global family, we’re like this brotherhood, this sisterhood, a band of brothers and sisters, one big family, a really big human family. We’re going to need each other to get through the days ahead.”
The Apostolic Penitentiary has granted a special Plenary Indulgence for those suffering from coronavirus, for health care workers and family members, for those who pray for an end to the epidemic, and for those who are unable to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. For more detail please read the Vatican press release here.
If you’re unable to be physically present with your dying loved one we have added some more Catholic prayers for use during this unprecedented time.