Standing with Christ during the pandemic

BRIDGEPORT– When Bishop Caggiano first challenged the people of the diocese to “Stand with Christ” by serving others, he could not have foreseen the pandemic that would lead to unprecedented hardship and suffering for many in Fairfield County.

Yet, almost a year into the pandemic, the Foundations the diocese created to bring additional resources to education, charitable works, and faith formation have played a major role in funding the response to the crisis.

The bishop said that serving others during the pandemic is an historic and heroic form of Christian witness. He has also praised those who have given generously in support of diocesan ministries, programs and services that have been able to reach out to the most vulnerable.

“For many months, we reflected together on those with whom we stand with Christ — our neighbors, the poor, our students, our elderly and our youth,” he said recently. “And now in the midst of this terrible global crisis that has hit our diocese particularly hard, we can truly understand the importance of our commitment to Christ.”

He points to the initiatives that have made a difference during a year of turmoil, many of them made possible through the We Stand With Christ campaign that supports three foundations in education, faith and charity:

  • Catholic schools have continued to teach students through faith-filled education online.
  • Parishes struggling to pay their bills have received financial assistance.
  • Chaplains and religious continue to minister to the sick and dying.
  • Catholic Charities’ soup kitchens and food pantries are open and serving more people than ever at a time when others have been forced to close.

In response to parish needs, the St. Francis Xavier Mission Church Fund was established to support parishes with strained finances. This fund supported capital repairs and expanded pastoral resources that were beyond the financial capacity of the parishes.

Foundations in Faith launched the COVID-19 Emergency Fund to make available limited emergency assistance to churches with financial problems because of the pandemic.

In the past year, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County confronted a rising demand for services.

“The working poor, the homeless, and the elderly are the ones being hurt the most by this COVID-19 crisis, and our mission has always been to take care of our most vulnerable neighbors in Fairfield County,” said Michael Donoghue, executive director.

The demand for food resources increased 50 percent and virtually doubled because of the pandemic. The three soup kitchens that serve the county — New Covenant Center in Stamford, Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport and Morning Glory Breakfast Program in Danbury — saw a significant increase in demand as more people turned to them at a time when other food pantries and cafes closed.

“This was a once-in-a-century pandemic, and if there is any time the services of Catholic Charities are needed, it is now,” Donoghue said.

An enduring legacy of service

Father William Platt, pastor of The Parish of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Agnes in Greenwich and Director of Hospital Chaplains for the Diocese, says, “Our chaplains continued to serve with courage through this pandemic. They have had to navigate a wide range of hospital and nursing home protocols in regard to visitation and the last rites. They have done so with skill and compassion. The Catholic Church is the only faith group that provides chaplains to public institutions free of charge.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were restricted from visiting patients in their rooms and had to rely on phone calls and Zoom sessions to pray with patients who were isolated from their families. The Catholic nurses would often put them in touch with patients who needed prayer and encouragement.

Father Matthew Mauriello, chaplain of the Knights of Columbus Orinoco Assembly #126, has been serving the sick and dying at St. Camillus Center in Stamford for five years.

When asked about his ministry as chaplain on the pastoral care team at the 124-bed nursing facility, he says, “I am just doing my job. This is my job, and I’m not looking for recognition. I just hope the Lord helps us out, so we can go back to some normalcy soon.”

During the pandemic, which hampered pastoral ministries, Father embraced the message of St. Paul who said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

“We have to be there, rejoicing with those who rejoice,” he said, “and weeping with those who weep. With this coronavirus situation, families of the residents were not even allowed to hold their hand as they were dying.”

In his work, he is assisted by Sister Elizabeth Rani Antony Samy and Sister Annarani Annapandi, two Franciscans of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who live at Star of the Sea in Stamford.

“We are so fortunate to have him during this pandemic,” says Marjorie Simpson, senior executive director at St. Camillus.

On a daily basis, Father Paul Sankar and Father Marcel Saint Jean, both chaplains at Norwalk Hospital, bring Christ to the infirm and dying.

“We hospital chaplains visit these patients, and they are very happy to see us,” Fr. Paul says. Being a hospital chaplain is a special calling, which requires a priest to be available whenever a call comes in. He says it is a wonderful ministry to care for the sick and to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy.

“There isn’t a greater way to serve the Lord than when I am helping a vulnerable person,” said Father Marcel. “This is evident when I am present in a room with a patient. What makes it so authentic is knowing I am seeing the Lord in that patient. As a chaplain, there isn’t a time when I am with a patient and not hearing the voice of Jesus resounding in my heart and ears saying, ‘I was sick and you came to visit me.’”

They are only a few of the priests and religious who have ministered to the sick during the coronavirus crisis.

An enduring lesson for Catholics

When Msgr. Fairbanks talks to seminarians about the Catholic tradition of service, the example of their patron saint comes to mind.

“I always talk about the Plague of St. Charles,” he says. “I point out that when there is a difficulty or a crisis, there is the flight-or-fight response, and the temptation is to run and keep yourself safe.” That, however, is not what St. Charles did, and that is not what Catholics are called to do.

He tells the seminarians that people remember when you show concern and compassion. People remember that you went to a funeral. People remember that you came when they were sick. People remember that you offered help when they were in need. People remember that you stepped up when you were needed the most.

“The Plague of St. Charles drives home the message that St. Charles was trying to convey,” he says. “That message is the Church cares about people, God cares about people and as people of God, we care about each other.”

The instinct to run away out of concern for yourself is not what being a Christian or priest is about. He tells the young men, “You have to have the courage to respond to people in need.”

He also reminds them of their heroic legacy. He reminds them of the seminarians, religious and priests who went out into a terrified city during the deadly Spanish flu pandemic and did what Christ would expect them to do, despite the danger.

“This was an opportunity that people remember — when priests went out and cared for the sick, when priests went out and anointed the sick, when seminarians went out to do a corporal work of mercy and bury the dead,” he said. “They were opportunities….And now we have an opportunity.”

The above report is the final in a three-part series by Joe Pisani on “The Church during plagues and pandemics.” Part 1 offered a look at how the Church of today’s pandemic and the Church that coped with the plague are united in their faith and attempts to safeguard life. Part II explored the Church’s response to the 1918 flu epidemic.)