For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Mark 8:36-37)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
I am in my 75th year, a bellwether of the Baby Boom generation, and I am looking forward to getting my Covid-19 vaccinations as soon as possible.
I am also a retired priest. Most of my ordained colleagues are younger than I and are serving active congregations.
So who goes first?
The Centers for Disease Control is apparently drawing up priority guidelines as to “essential” recipients, and it is thought that the elderly and “first responders” will go to the head of the line. I have heard no mention of clergy being on the list of essential workers.
It is, I suppose, not surprising that in a secular society, clergy are considered non-essential, but what surprises me is that there has been no call from church leaders in this matter. All too frequently there has been a sheepish plea for compliance with regulations restricting worship, even when secular bodies are exempted from them. The Supreme Court just struck down such a provision in New York as a violation of the free practice of religion, which is good, but such a decision lacks the rationale that religion – and Christianity in particular – is a matter of the life of the immortal soul, not just the body.
Classically, the work of clergy – and religious orders – has been called “the cure of souls.” This cure includes both care for matters of bodily and psychological health but also preparation for death, judgment, and the life to come. Much of this preparation, of course, comes pre-emptively through preaching and teaching of the flock and the sacraments, but there are also those critical moments when death draws near. Roman Catholics administer last rites. The ACNA Book of Common Prayer provides the following rites of healing (pages 222-266): Reconciliation of Penitents, Ministry to the Sick, Communion of the Sick, Ministry to the Dying, and Prayers for a Vigil, ultimately leading to the Burial of the Dead.
The Church calendar also reminds us of martyrs who have counted not the cost of their lives for the sake of the sick and dying. In 1878, a terrible yellow fever plague hit the U.S. South, and the city of Memphis became a “city of the dead,” with 5,000 victims and many others fleeing. Into this city came a party of Anglican Sisters of St. Mary, led by their superior, Sister Constance, and two priests, the Revs. Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler. They fearlessly visited the sick and dying and then, one by one, they too perished.
If clergy and religious are not first responders, surely they should be last responders. This kind of ministry had declined or fallen out of use among some pastors even before the coronavirus hit. I am sure some clergy have found creative ways of reaching sick and dying without physically visiting them. But let’s not pretend that many dying souls – and lost souls – have been left without the comfort of physical visitation by family, friends, and clergy. What a blessing it will be to return to some kind of normalcy!
Government has recognized the importance of chaplains in the military, as soldiers risk their life in battle. It seems unlikely it will do so in the case of Covid-19. Perhaps older clergy like myself could be commissioned as temporary chaplains until others have been vaccinated. But most importantly, I would hope that the crisis of this past year would reawaken our awareness of the gulf that divides life and death, body and soul.
There is a whole generation of Baby Boomers approaching that awesome “bourne from which no traveler returns” and against which no vaccine can immunize. My hope is that the church and its pastors can see this time of crisis as an opportunity to reach the living dead with the voice of the Good Shepherd who says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).