A hospital chaplain faces ministry challenges due to pandemic

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In the uncertain times of COVID-19, Deacon Mick Fornelli has passage to a part of Anchorage many people don’t have: hospital rooms. “I’ve been involved in hospital ministry ever since my ordination, a little over 11 years,” said Deacon Fornelli. “Most of it was at St. Elias Specialty Hospital in Anchorage as a chaplain. I did about nine years with them.” He also works as a chaplain with the Anchorage Police and Fire Department, and with Alaska Regional Hospital. “I’ve been working with them on an on-call basis for a year and a half whenever they need a Catholic minister,” he said.

Deacon Fornelli, among others, can continue ministry during this time because of his chaplaincy. “I’ve gone through the APD training, and because I’m on staff as an APD chaplain and volunteer at Alaska Regional, I’ve had access to visit people,” said Deacon Fornelli. “The blessing is that I have been able to go in and see patients in the hospital who would otherwise not have access to any Catholic presence. The challenge is that, because I’m a deacon, when I have someone who’s in close proximity to death, I need to find a priest who can administer last rites, and that is sometimes prevented due to the COVID-19 crisis. That’s been a challenge to find workarounds on that.”

Despite the difficulties, Deacon Fornelli says, ministry as a hospital chaplain is extremely rewarding. “You visit so many people that they all kind of blur in your mind, you don’t remember everyone. But people will come up to me and say, ‘I remember you. You were at St. Elias, weren’t you? You brought me communion.’ You end up talking with them and it’s the fact that you know God has used you as a servant to these people, bringing a little bit of Eucharist to them, a little bit of dialogue, a little bit of contact to their faith community through your visitation.”

How can an ordinary person support the hospitals, patients and medical staff? “The honest answer is everything we’ve been talking about: by taking all the precautions we possibly can as ordinary people who are not in the medical profession, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to protect ourselves and our families,” said Deacon Fornelli. “That is what medical professionals really need right now. We don’t want to be in a situation where we would be overwhelmed. There was a point early on in the pandemic where 85% of the hospital beds were filled. If it had been any worse than it is, we would not have had facilities for people.”

Deacon Fornelli’s wife, Michelle, is a doctor and serves her patients in a professional capacity as well. “She’s encouraging as many people as possible to use telemedicine, to call in and do screening and testing, doing everything they can before they go to the hospital and then making sure that everyone who does come in gets a pre-test and is masked and doing what they can to protect themselves,” he said. “I’m concerned about her going in on a daily basis because she still deals with patients.”

As Catholics, we know that the power of prayer can minister even where we cannot serve physically. “As Catholics, we pray for our medical professionals, the sick, the people who are on the front lines, and first responders of all sorts,” said Deacon Fornelli. “We must do everything we possibly can to help mitigate the spread of this disease and offer at least some spiritual help for those medical professionals who need prayers on a day-to-day basis. Continue to pray for them.”

Deacon Fornelli reflected on the beauty of serving as a hospital chaplain and being God’s presence to people during their most difficult moments. “There have been some catastrophic accidents where I’ve been able to go in and minister with the family who have lost more than one loved one, or are experiencing an unexpected death or injury,” said Deacon Fornelli. “You’re able to help them in their stages of grief and to be present to them, to allow them to express their sorrows, their concerns, their frustrations, their anxieties, their grief. We allow them to begin the long-term process of healing and work with them, in many cases, with funeral arrangements and walking with them to the burial site and even afterward. It’s a pure joy and I find great satisfaction in knowing that God has allowed me to serve in this capacity.”

Medical professionals, chaplains, and first responders have been a godsend these past months. “My kudos to all the other people out there in this line of work, working as chaplains because there’s a lot on the line, especially the first responders who are going out and doing the best job they can, with a fire or police issue, dealing with catastrophic issues every day,” said Deacon Fornelli. “God bless first responders.”


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