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UPDATE: Hospitals across US close doors to pastors despite ailing coronavirus patients in need

Metro Health in western Michigan hung up a LifeSite journalist seeking clarification about why they no longer allow pastors to visit sick patients.
Thu Mar 26, 2020 - 3:08 pm EST
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UPDATE: March 30, 2020, 10:35am. The Dicoese of Grand Rapids has informed Catholics that Metro Health Hospital will allow priests but only to celebrate the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and Viaticum for the dying. Previously, the diocese said Metro Health would not allow priests “under any circumstances.” Holland Hospital will also permit priests but only to celebrate the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and Viaticum for the dying if the patient does not have COVID-19. 

UPDATE: March 27, 2020, 3:10pm. LifeSite has been informed that Spectrum Health in western Michigan has revised its policy of banning priests and clergy from visiting sick patients. Below is a statement they released Friday afternoon: 

All of us are experiencing difficult times during this pandemic. The quick spread of COVID-19 has required very challenging decisions by health care providers. We recently joined other hospitals across the state in revising our visitation policy. The temporary restrictions are intended to prevent the spread of illness and protect patients, health care workers and our communities. That restriction of visitors includes members of the clergy, and it was a difficult decision. Spectrum Health’s restrictions can be found here.

Spectrum Health greatly values pastoral care and providing spiritual and emotional support to patients, family and staff. Our Pastoral Care and Bereavement staff are working remotely but providing virtual spiritual care including virtual mass and services. We encourage clergy outside of Spectrum Health to do the same.

One of the Catholic priests on the Spectrum Health pastoral care staff is committed to being available and physically present for Catholic patients in need of last rites in our acute care hospitals in Grand Rapids, along with performing those rites virtually for those at our regional hospitals. In this unusual time, providing exceptional care for patients is quite different than before this pandemic started.

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.

According to a public statement released this week by Bishop David Walkowiak of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, 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 while Spectrum Health is a 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 western Michigan, Mercy Heath St. Mary’s, will continue to allow priests to visit the sick, 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.”

Bishop Wakowiak’s statement urged Catholic to pray for an end to the outbreak as well as for those who are are sick and the health care workers who accompany them.

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 Extreme Unction, or, 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 initially 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 on Thursday for comment.

Rev. Nathaniel Johnson, a United Methodist minister, is the manager of the Pastoral Care & Bereavement department at Spectrum Health. He has been with them for eight years.

Though unable to give details about who made the decision to ban clergy from visiting sick patients in the first, he informed LifeSite that he would forward our questions to persons who could better answer them. LifeSite has posted the hospital’s public response at the top of this article.

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?”

“Nope!”

“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.

For respectful comments only, please contact the following:

U of M Metro Health

(616) 252-7200 (operator)
(616) 252-5033 (media relations)

Spectrum Health

Media Relations Department

Susan Krieger
(616) 391-5541
[email protected] 

(888) 989-7999 (General line)


  coronavirus, covid-19, david walkowiak, hospitals, michigan, priests

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