MOSCOW — Father Vasily Gelevan bends over a COVID-19 patient at her apartment to administer Holy Communion and say words of comfort while clad in a hazmat suit.
The bedside ministry is one of many such visits the 45-year old Russian Orthodox priest makes daily as he shuttles across Moscow in a minivan to tend to people fighting the coronavirus at their homes or in hospital rooms.
Gelevan’s family at first wasn’t happy with his decision to come in close contact with those infected with the virus, but the father of five sees pastoral care as a responsibility he can’t refuse, especially during a pandemic.
“I put myself in their place,” he said. “For me, the visit of a priest giving Holy Communion would be the most desirable thing. It doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t see his face. I would hear his voice, he would come and embrace me, show his sympathy and bring me the most precious thing in the world — the Holy Communion!”
For several years before the coronavirus outbreak, the priest visited the gravely ill at Moscow hospitals. Then the coronavirus hit the Russian capital.
“They called me and said that there is a lot of work to do, many people are sick, and there are few who are trained to overcome the stress and enter the red zone to offer help,” Gelevan said. “I felt that I must answer the call.”
Moscow has accounted for about half of the nation’s more than 449,000 confirmed cases, the world’s third-highest number after the United States and Brazil. Russia reported 5,520 virus-related deaths as of Friday.
Along with needing to reassure his family — “They told me that I was playing a hero,” Gelevan said — the priest had to cope with his own fear of exposure as the virus rapidly engulfed Russia.
Gelevan recalled that the first time he went to first visit a COVID-19 patient, he was shocked to see cotton stuffed into the keyhole of the woman’s apartment door. He assumed it was put there to protect the neighbors from the virus. It turned out that the woman had blocked the keyhole long before to protect herself from the neighbor’s tobacco smoke.
“I often remember that keyhole,” the priest said. “I realized that the eyes of fear see danger everywhere.”
Gelevan said he wears all the required gear to keep himself from becoming infected and takes other necessary precautions, but won’t allow fear to stand in the way of performing his clerical duties.
“You just need to find a middle way without falling into extremes — being panicky or going into COVID-19 denial,” he said.
Gelevan serves as a priest at Moscow’s Church of the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin in Sokolniki, which was built by the Russian imperial army in 1906. During Soviet times, the church housed a military unit, and after the Russian Orthodox Church reclaimed it in the early 2000s it became the official church of the Russian airborne forces.
The church, like all churches in Russia, has been closed to parishioners since April 13 and is set to reopen on Saturday. In the recent times of illness and disruption, Gelevan sees a message to humankind to abandon its arrogance and correct its mistakes.
“We shall weep and then calm down, raise from our knees and go forward,” he said. “We will become simpler and more humane, filled with more love for ourselves and others and also the world around us.”