COVID affects seminarian assignments

ORLANDO | Each summer seminarians are assigned to a variety of opportunities designed to broaden their exposure to priestly life, expand their knowledge and improve their skills. The advent of COVID-19 limited those opportunities. No more trips abroad to learn a language (usually Spanish), or traveling to Creighton University for summer courses or the traditional 30-day Ignatian retreat.

Transitional Deacon Robert Marquez should be in Omaha, Nebraska. Instead, what would have been a month at St. Anthony Parish in Lakeland, has turned into three. He is not disappointed. “It’s been an amazing experience. Even though I haven’t been able to interact with a lot of people because of COVID, I try to get to the Masses early… getting to know them and understand where they’re coming from and who they are. That helps me as a future priest to understand what their needs are.” He added, “Even though it’s been minimal, I’ve tried to do the best with the opportunities I have had.”

One such opportunity was baptizing three children, something he would have missed otherwise. He joked as he reflected on the Sacramental celebration.

“Trial by fire as the first one was a double whammy, two of them,” he laughed. “It was a little bit scary, to say the least, because it was in Spanish.” Although Deacon Marquez is Cuban and was raised speaking Spanish, it is his second language.

“It was a great experience,” he assured, noting practice is beneficial. After pouring water on the head of the first child, the infant started screaming. For the second, he poured “little scoops”. The practical experience offered by summer assignments also enables spiritual growth.

“It was really good just to be able to allow the Holy Spirit to work through me so that the child can receive the gift of Baptism and the gift of Christ and that relationship that began that day and will continue. Also, imparting the words to those parents to help them understand,” Deacon Marquez said. “It’s a beautiful gift they need to nurture. It’s a community effort.”

Early on, Deacon Marquez provided baptismal catechesis, accompanying the families on this journey of initiation. He preached every Sunday and often during daily Masses. He even spoke at a funeral. On Fridays, he helped in the food pantry, putting together bags of groceries for the homeless. In his spare time, he interviewed staff to learn about each of their roles at the parish to help him “develop”.

Remembering the year he served at Bishop Grady Villas, a community of individuals with disabilities, he realized sometimes it is just about “being a presence of Christ to them, sharing faith.” He noted, “Every assignment has its own graces.”

Seminarians Eddiel Rivera and Angel García learned this firsthand. They spent five weeks of their summer on the Clinical Pastoral Experience (CPE) rotation. Normally 10 weeks, the assignment ended abruptly due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where they were assigned. “When we got there at the end of May for orientation, there were about 80 hospitalizations (for COVID),” explained Rivera. “The last week when we left, there were 410 COVID patients in the hospital.” Jackson is the second largest hospital in the United States and as floors they had been visiting became COVID floors, the nature of their ministry changed. “It was a difficult situation,” Rivera noted.

Rivera said he saw Christ, “In the patients and even in the staff. Jackson was completely shut off to visitors, so a lot of these people had been there for weeks. They hadn’t seen anyone, but their nurse. It was good being able to share with people. They would open up to me about their fears, their family, their situation. Just being able to share with them in that and bring Christ’s love into the situation, those pains and sufferings,” was meaningful, he said. The patients’ vulnerability and the transparency with which they shared their fears was a surprise to García.

CPE is often a time for seminarians to look inward and work on healing their own wounds. Deacon Marquez explained, “If you help the person heal emotionally and get to know themselves spiritually, then it helps them heal physically as well.”

Rivera said his own healing took place as he learned to be and not do. “I have the mentality of a fixer,” Rivera explained. “Especially when we’re starting to try to be priests, the first instinct is to fix people. What CPE invites you to do is stop and be with the person. It’s not a ministry of doing, but of being present to the people—of letting them share themselves with you and helping them see Christ in their own life, rather than bringing Christ into it. You don’t want to force anything on them, but invite them to see how the Lord is working in their lives and become more aware of that.”

García could relate. “It was a difficult ministry,” he admitted. “Because of COVID restrictions, we had to wear double masks, goggles, and keep social distance. Sometimes the ministry was a little distant. People felt lonely because they couldn’t have visitors at the hospital, so we were there for them. We became the family for the patients. I had this one patient who asked me to visit him because he felt lonely. I prayed with him and was just there with him. My biggest job was being present to the patients.”

Seminarians were not allowed to minister directly to COVID patients. As the situation escalated, more beds were allocated to accommodate them. “I’ll be honest with you. It was scary some days,” García admitted. “You would walk into a room or were walking around the hallway and you didn’t know if you were coming into contact with COVID. Of course, the fear comes in—the humanity. But trusting in the Lord, that He would protect us and always provide… He did. He protected us all those weeks. I was able to grow in that trust in the Lord.”

The two worked 24-hour shifts, walking the way of doctors and nurses. “It was a beautiful experience to have the opportunity to minister to people in the hospital, especially in the situation we’re in with COVID-19. We were there on the front lines,” García acknowledged. “It was inspiring to see how hard the nurses and the doctors worked – long shifts. I was able to connect with a lot of the nurses. All I could do was encourage them and thank them for the work they do. I told them, ‘You are the true heroes, here on the front lines, risking your lives.’”

In their final week, Rivera and García found themselves with less to do. “They closed down the floors to all non-essentials the last three days we were there. I visited two patients,” recalled Rivera. “Unless a patient asked for a chaplain, we weren’t really doing much. Our supervisor invited us to spend time interceding for the hospital, for the people that are sick, for the nurses. That calmed me down, but also helped me focus on what is important—not only visiting patients, but ministering to them through prayer,” he said. García agreed, “It changed the dynamic of the program toward the end.”

With their CPE over, the two shifted their assignment, becoming camp staff at San Pedro Spiritual Development Center in Winter Park.

As García reflected on the contrasting experiences, he found there was more in common than he anticipated. “Throughout the whole time I was at Jackson, I was asking Mary more for her intercession – not only for us, but for the patients and the staff,” García said. “When I learned I was coming to San Pedro and the topic (for camp) was Mary, I thought, whoa, Our Lady was really there. She was really interceding. Mary trusted in the Lord. When the angel gave her this big news, he turned and then left… And she was left with this mission. Mary was left with this, and her trust. For all of us, I think this is a very important thing.”

As the pandemic continues to change assignments, plans and lives daily, García noted, “We have to learn a lot from Mary.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, August 5, 2020