LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Clergy from the Archdiocese of Birmingham are training to be chaplains in the emergency “Nightingale hospital” being prepared to deal with the expected overflow of patients caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“We have a list of clergy who are going to be ready – as long as they can have the PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] and the proper training – to go and support the staff as well as the patients,” said Birmingham Archbishop Bernard Longley.
According to the data released by the UK government on Wednesday evening, 60,733 have tested positive for the coronavirus, although the true numbers is probably far higher, since most people self-isolating with symptoms are not being tested. Of those, 7,097 have died – although this number only includes those who had been hospitalized.
Wednesday’s death total alone was 938; on Tuesday, it was 854. Government officials say things will probably get worse before they get better.
To handle the large number of expected patients, the National Health Service (NHS), the UK’s state-run healthcare system, has established five “Nightingale hospitals” – named after Florence Nightingale, the Englishwoman credited with inventing modern nursing – in different parts of the country.
One will be just outside Birmingham, at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC). The hospital was scheduled to open for test runs on Friday and will accept its first patients on Sunday. The 500-bed facility can be expanded to 1500 beds if necessary and will even have a pop-up supermarket onsite. A hangar at Birmingham Airport, which borders the NEC, will serve as a temporary morgue for the hospital.
Although social distancing rules have limited the contact clergy can have with the faithful, chaplains have still been active in UK hospitals.
“We have respected the hospital trusts absolutely in their requirements, but most of our hospitals have been admitting chaplains, and they have been able to spend time even with coronavirus victims themselves,” Longley said during a Zoom press briefing.
“I am grateful for the coordinators of hospital chaplaincy in my own archdiocese…they have done a tremendous job keeping in touch with hospital chaplains, not only priests and deacons, but with the many volunteers who are going out of their own way, and of course risking their own health, to be there where people need them,” the archbishop said.
Longley said the NHS has been working with faith groups to ensure chaplain support, and the archdiocese has provided the hospital with the names of 10 clergymen to serve as chaplains, as well as 10 names on a reserve list.
“We are preparing as well as we can, and one of the really important things these are all clergy who have good experience as hospital chaplains. As far as I know, it is not going to be possible to involve the wider range of volunteers who are a very important part of hospital chaplaincy, generally,” he said.
“It’s encouraging to know that in most of the cases across this archdiocese, chaplains have been welcomed into hospitals, and seen as very keen; not least, in support of staff, and of families … bereaved families, as well. It’s been very reassuring to see the way in which the NHS trusts are using our chaplaincies,” the archbishop continued.
However, the archbishop said the guidelines for fighting the pandemic still preclude regular access to the sacraments for the general public, including confession.
“In that context, we do remind all our clergy that we are asking them – we are expected ourselves – to follow government guidelines and to interpret them accordingly. The priority is that none of actions should jeopardize the health of anybody else,” Longley explained.
Acknowledging that the spiritual wellbeing of people “is, obviously, at the core of our ministry,” the archbishop said the country’s Catholic leaders are “keen” to lift any “spiritual burden” the faithful have about fulfilling their Easter duty – the requirement to go to confession and receive the Eucharist during the Easter season, which has been lifted this year due to the pandemic.
“That’s very important because at this time of year most people will associate the desire to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion at Eastertide … with the desire to be in a state of grace to receive the Lord and therefore to receive the sacrament of reconciliation,” he said.
He said there have been some people asking for general absolution – where a group of people receive sacramental absolution without individual confession due to extraordinary circumstances such as a war or natural disaster – but said, “that is impossible because it requires people to come together.”
Longley pointed to the “desire in people’s hearts” for the sacrament of reconciliation, but advised the faithful to “in your own heart make a good act of contrition, to be aware that the Lord is offering you forgiveness this way, just as you would at the beginning of Mass. It must be sufficient.”
“Trust in the Lord until the time we can come together,” the archbishop said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome