Versatile chaplains run coronavirus gauntlet to comfort ailing patients

‘Our approach to ministry with the sick has had to change ... to slow spread of the disease’

When Father Neil Farren ministers to a patient with coronavirus, he tells them to "keep the hope".

Together they talk, and pray. “I’m praying the medics will assist them through, and I’m praying that they will keep that courage and keep that spirit of hope to fight despite the fear, and hold on to the awareness of Christ’s cross and the grace of Christ to give them the strength to get through.

“I think hope is vital.”

The parish priest at Ardmore, just outside Derry, Fr Farren is also the chaplain to the city's Altnagelvin hospital. Both have changed because of coronavirus; he now says Mass to an empty chapel while his parishioners watch online, and he must talk to hospital patients over the phone rather than visit them in person.


Throughout Ireland, visits to hospitals been stopped in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. "Our approach to ministry with the sick has had to change in line with best practice and in a combined effort to slow the spread of the disease," explains Bishop Michael Router, Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh and chair of the Council for Healthcare of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference.

“New ways of thinking and practicing are required.” In general hospitals like Altnagelvin, chaplaincy support helplines for staff and patients have been put in place; phones are available in most wards for patients or healthcare workers to contact chaplains like Fr Farren.

The only exception is for the sickest. “Chaplains are often the only persons other than doctors and nurses who can be with people suffering from Covid-19,” says Bishop Router.

In Belfast, full-time chaplains are still working in the hospitals where coronavirus patients are being treated. Fully clad in personal protective equipment (PPE) - and changing and showering between each patient - they are allowed to visit the most seriously ill in order to sit and talk with them, and to administer the sacrament of the sick, or the last rites.

They also act as a go-between for relatives who are unable to visit loved ones themselves. “To relatives at this time it is very, very important,” explains Father Eddie McGee from the Down and Connor diocese, which encompasses Belfast.

“For their loved ones in hospital, the presence of the hospital chaplain and the administration of the sacrament brings consolation and the comfort of knowing that the chaplain can be with their sick relatives.”

Fr Farren has experienced this first hand. “Families feel helpless in that they’d like to be there but they can’t be there, and people have a sense of dread and fear [about coronavirus] and patients do feel a sense of isolation because they can’t have visitors and there is that sense of maybe being alone.

“There’s frustration, but it’s an understandable frustration, they understand why. People are very understanding because they know this isn’t a normal circumstance.”

In this abnormal set of circumstances, he believes people have found great solace in being able to attend Mass online. “I know I get a lot of parishioners saying they’re looking forward to it, they’re following the Rosary at seven o’clock every evening and Mass every morning at ten and they find it of great assistance to them.”

Easter will be unprecedented. In Fr Farren’s experience, people locally have “a keen awareness of social distance” and “understand the need and the hope that if everybody keeps their social distance and their hygiene it will win the battle against Covid-19.

“Everyone is doing their best, and they understand why they can’t be at the church.”

While they understand in the short term, Fr Farren harbours his own concerns about the long term.

At a recent funeral only six people were allowed into the cemetery; “again they understood,” he says, “but possibly will have an impact in regards to finding their grief more difficult.

“During the time of the Troubles I felt the tension but I always wondered how come people weren’t speaking to me about their tensions or their fear or their stress, but it was when it was all over that it came.

“You might nurses or doctors or patients or people bearing up [now], but when it’s all over maybe then there’ll be more a need of somebody to listen.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times