The life and the ministry of most Catholic priests is very different in this Age of the Pandemic.
We do not have to look much further than the life of Fr. Fabian Arias, a Catholic priest from Buenos Aires, Argentina who is the pastor of Iglesia de Sion, a mission parish alongside Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. He has performed funeral services 14 times in the last two months.
“Ninety-nine percent of funeral homes are not receiving people for religious ceremonies; they say ‘no,’” said Fr. Arias “They will take your body and provide cremation.” The financial costs of services, already difficult for working-class families to afford, are compounded by the historic death toll thrusting funeral homes across the city into overcapacity. Most have ended traditional religious services and family gatherings, including cemetery burials.
“People don’t have the ability to pay,” said Fr. Arias. “And when they have the opportunity for a service, the funeral homes abuse the community. They say, ‘You pay us $10,000 or $15,000.’”
On Saturday, May 9th, Fr. Arias performed a service for Raul Luis Lopez at the home where he lived with his wife before he died in April. López never had the chance to say goodbye to his family. López was hospitalized for COVID-19 on April 3rd before succumbing nearly three weeks later. The 39-year-old native of Oaxaca, Mexico, suffered from diabetes which worsened his illness. The day he left for treatment was the last time his wife, Sara Cruz, saw him.
López, who worked in the delivery business, came to the United States 20 years ago and settled in New York nine years prior to his death. Described as a kind man devoted to his fellow parishioners, his loss pains family members beyond the city’s borders.
“We’re planning to send him to Mexico but right now we don’t have international flights,” said a family member. “We’re trying to get his ashes to our town, for his mom and his dad, who are still alive in Mexico. He’s our family but he belongs to them, to his parents.”
Now López’s family, clad in surgical masks and gloves, is gathered in the widow’s living room in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, around a black box of his cremated remains. A rendering of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico and the Americas, watches over his ashes on a table beside flowers and prayer candles.
Father Arias goes out of his way to protect himself from the contagion with personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers. Nearly a dozen family members wear masks and gloves.
Despite the risks, Fr. Arias is undaunted, trusting in God and taking great care to lessen transmission risks. “It’s very hard for our community,” says Fr. Arias. “For all Latinos, when our people die, they receive a blessing. We say the last goodbye and pray together. It’s very important for us.”
When the service ended, the family, still wearing masks, moved to the kitchen to eat a meal; they spread out as much as possible.
“After this service, I feel much, much better and relieved that the spirit of Raul is released into God’s hands,” said his widow, Sara Cruz.
“Everybody is afraid, not only for ourselves, but for our community and especially for Father Fabian and all the services he’s doing. It’s very dangerous for him. But he’s here for us.”
This story appeared in the Associated Press. By John Minchillo. May 10, 2020
How is the life and the ministry of the priests and the clergy in YOUR parish now different in the Age of the Pandemic?
What kind of support are YOU offering the priests and the clergy at a time when they need it the most?