The Archdiocese of Chicago has assembled a team of 24 priest volunteers— all under age 60, and without pre-existing medical conditions— to administer sacramental anointing of the sick to Catholics with COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Father Matthew O’Donnell, pastor of St. Columbanus Parish on the city’s South Side, has been a part of the team for about three weeks, and told CNA that so far he has anointed two people with COVID-19.

"I know that all of us who are doing this ministry in Chicago right now are doing it because we believe that this is what we're called to do as priests, to be present to people," Fr. O’Donnell told CNA.

"And I think all of us are knowledgeable of the risks, but the importance of the sacrament outweighs that."

The archdiocese is divided into six vicariates, or regions. Within each one, O’Donnell said, the archdiocese wanted to ensure that there were at least four priests available that could handle the vicariate's anointing needs, while also ensuring that no one priest is called to every single COVID-19 patient in his area.

He said pastors can call the archdiocese to let them know about a parishioner with COVID-19, and the archdiocese will then reach out to a member of the volunteer priest team to convey the patient's name, the hospital where they are located, and any other pertinent information.

When he first offered to volunteer, Fr. O’Donnell said he thought it would be a while before he actually got a call to anoint a COVID-19 patient.

In reality, the day after he agreed to volunteer, the priest received his first request.

"Knowing that there's not a lot of young priests that are here, that was what made me want to volunteer. Making sure the priests in my area who might overage, or have other health issues, and I knew I wanted to volunteer for that reason," he said.

"More importantly, knowing how powerful the sacrament of the anointing of the sick can be for individuals and for families, I think as our parishes aren't able to have public liturgies right now, this was a way for me to really minister and to really reach out people and allow the Church to be present to people in what is definitely a moment of great suffering."

At the first hospital he visited for the anointing, Father Matthew said he wore a bodysuit, a gown, gloves, an N95 mask, goggles, a hairnet, and shoe coverings— all provided by the hospital.

Once he had completed the anointing in the patient's room, the hospital walked him through a protocol for taking all the equipment off in a safe and sterile manner.

In addition to the hospital's precautions, O’Donnell said the archdiocese offered training to the priests on the team on how to safely administer the sacrament to COVID-19 patients.

One of the recommended practices was to make sure not to dip their thumbs into the oil twice— so as to avoid contaminating the oil— and instead use a different finger to anoint first the patient's head, and then the hands.

The priests were encouraged to either burn or bury the cotton on which they placed oil, and to disinfect the outside of the oil stock.

O’Donnell said he has been amazed at the gratefulness of the hospital staff, many of whom have expressed gratitude to him for his willingness to come and minister to the patients.

Though the team of young priests is not able to "assemble" in person, O’Donnell said he has been in touch with several of his brother priests and fellow team members.

"I've definitely talked to several of the other guys, some of whom haven't yet gone to anoint someone, and others who have,” he told CNA.

“Every hospital has different protocols in place, and it's been very similar experiences making sure that we have all the protective equipment on.”

In addition to administering anointing, O’Donnell has spoken on the phone with several families of COVID-19 patients.

He pointed out that many of the people suffering from the coronavirus cannot have visitors in their hospital rooms. So for him, as a priest, the fact that he is able to go and visit someone's loved one, and relay to the family information about how their loved one is doing, brings comfort to the families, he said.

A number of hospitals in the Chicago area are not allowing priests to enter areas with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to perform last rites. In those cases, the families are reaching out to O’Donnell by phone, seeking a priest to talk to for spiritual guidance, and to ask for prayers. He has been talking on the phone to two or three families a week, in addition to his own parishioners.

O’Donnell said many of his own parishioners have contacted him, asking him whether he is safeguarding his own health when he goes to administer the anointing.

He said he has been reassuring them that the archdiocese and the hospitals are taking the precautions necessary to keep the priests safe.

The sacramental anointing of the sick is conferred upon those Catholics who are in danger of death.

“The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will. Furthermore, ‘if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven,’” the catechism adds.

The catechism explains that “as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."