A Priest’s Perspective: Delivering Spiritual Care through Covid-19

Wednesday 15th April 2020

Fr Frankie Mulgrew is a priest in our diocese from St Mary’s, Salford, and a hospital Chaplain at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust. Here in an interview with the Art of Dying Well, he reflects on his experiences through the Covid-19 pandemic. 

We’re living under difficult circumstances. The greatest message that we as priests can give to anybody is the message that they are loved. That they are not alone, and that they’re loved enough that someone wants to be sat next to them in this difficulty, standing with them on this front line.

I want people to know that they are not alone and from my perspective, my role is about helping them to remember that God never leaves them. That’s the key thing: he never leaves them, he always joins them in their pain and in their difficulties and in the highs and the lows, in the mess. That God is not going anywhere.

The Power of Togetherness

It is a great honour for me to be able to play my own part in this and, in whatever little capacity, to be there during this time. But the real heroes are the doctors and nurses.

From my place, I always offer 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. But we can also signpost people to other support. Marie Curie for example can help with people’s emotional wellbeing at this time, with their links to counsellors, psychologists and social workers.

Naturally in my role I meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Each day I am in conversation with people that are believers, and people that aren’t believers – being a hospital Chaplain is about being there for people in all walks of life. With the nurses and doctors and those that are really on the front line, there’s a level of accountability. We all know we’re not going to get through this without working together as a team. 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.

In these days I see that we’re like a global family. We are a brotherhood, a 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.

It’s strange. We are facing this isolation, but we are also meant to work together as a community, as this big human family, in order to contain this virus. It’s clear that everybody has their own part to play in this.

Changes to How we do Ministry

Unfortunately, due to the infectious nature of Covid-19 it is not possible for families to visit hospitals at this time. It is important that when you enter hospital, if you are a person of faith, you request that your details or those of a relative be passed onto the chaplaincy team so that we can still provide spiritual care to you.

When we Hospital Chaplains visit now, we must wear personal protective equipment, and take the lead from the hospital – if they are happy for us to go into a particular ward, then we will go in and minister. Yes, we must wear the gear but even with personal equipment – there are still the eyes. I hope you can still display a message of love with eyes.

When we anoint people, we no longer anoint with the thumb. Instead, we use a cotton bud with our holy oil, and we anoint them on the head and the hands. We are following official guidance and experts are giving us good advice on where we can minister, and where we can’t minister.  Most importantly, 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, we will.

If a family member or carer is with someone of faith, faith is a real key for them at this time too. I remember as a hospital chaplain even greeting a patient with a gentle smile can mean so much. Even just meeting and greeting can have such a huge impact. Mother Teresa used to say that a smile is like a sign of love; it lets a person know that they’re loved; that they’re accepted in that moment

Outside of the hospital, I’ve been speaking with the team around me in the parish. 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 but it’s really important for nobody to feel isolated.

We can use phones and technology to support them through this difficult time. As the saying goes, no person is an island. It’s just really important that they know that they’re not alone in this.

Making a Difference

I had a phone call the other day from a nearby 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 died and went home to the Lord.

Afterwards, the daughter told me that her mum had got a lot from that prayer over the phone. I was a bit taken aback thinking it was just a prayer over the phone. As a priest, I’m used to going in, seeing them and giving them the last rites, followed by prayers and taking time to sit 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 and confined – but I don’t think God’s love is ever confined or ever constricted. The power of God’s love is out there and I think it’s reaching people, even despite the difficult situation.

A Message of Hope

Where does my hope come from as a Catholic priest? I think my hope comes from 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.

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.

In this situation I want to give the hope that God loves you, no matter what, in life and death. God is there for you.

That’s what I will be holding onto these days. 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.


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