Death in the age of COVID-19

Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD, a graduate of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, was ordained at Techny and moved to Paraguay for his first assignment in 2018. He serves three parishes. The Paraguay Province recently announced his appointment as the district superior of Itapúa Sur district, one of the province’s five districts. He writes of the passing of a confrere during this unusual time.

By Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD

In March when Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez ordered flight restrictions, border closures and strict quarantine due to the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, my heart sank. Little did I know, it would affect our way of saying “goodbye” to our dearly departed—dying in solitude, without visits, wake or hugs.

The sanitary security measures instituted by the Ministry of Health and presidential order prevent family members from carrying out traditional farewell rituals for their loved ones.

Along with the pain and sadness that COVID-19 causes, the epidemic is posing a very unusual scenario. The strict health restrictions deny relatives the right to say goodbye. This crisis is making us live through situations in which certain cultural values ​​are subordinated to the objective priority of containing the spread of the pandemic.

One of the most dramatic and heartbreaking consequences is that even in their last moments of life, the grievously ill cannot see their relatives and are forced to die alone.

The pandemic changes the way we live and the way we die. To adjust, the archdiocese has modified the protocols for funeral services, both for deaths from this infection and for those who have died from other causes.

Many effected families naturally feel that this situation is cruel. Although they understand that the protocols are in place to combat a public health problem, it does not alleviate the sadness that they feel. There is no comfort at such difficult times.

Usually, the Catholic funeral rite is divided into several parts, each with its own purpose. During this pandemic, the typical funeral rite is simplified to one. As a Catholic religious priest, I am only allowed to do “un responso,” a last prayer for the deceased.

Do not confuse un responso with a Mass for the deceased. The responso is without Mass. This pastoral practice was put to the test when our confrere Father Bernardino Caceres SVD passed away due to health complications on April 17. He was the pastor of San Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz from 1987 to 1989 and 2006 to 2009.

I understand that grief is a necessary process, natural and inherent to the human being. But it does not mean that it was easy to say goodbye to our Father Caceres with only our provincial, vice provincial, the rector of our central retirement central house and the cemetery caretaker present.

The province’s cemetery, San Blas, is located 60 kilometers from the closest major city, Encarnacion. Father Caceres’s family and friends were not allowed during the burial because of travel restriction. The rest of us were there virtually.

New technologies like WhatsApp and Viber can help say goodbye to loved ones when no other alternative is possible. Through innovation and the use of modern tools, we can live through the pain of the pandemic together.

COVID-19: A time to live out the virtues of faith, hope and charity

Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD, who was born in Vietnam and moved to Wisconsin as a youth, was ordained to the priesthood in 2018. He is serving his first assignment in Paraguay.

By Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD

The world has stopped. Activities, economics, political life, travel, entertainment events and sport have stopped. Public religious life also has stopped.

Every Lenten season, the Church invites us to redirect our lives to focus on prayer, fasting and works of charity. This period of quarantine during COVID-19 is like the Lenten season. It is a universal abstinence.

May this episode be an auspicious time to live more intensely. The disease cannot stop us from worshipping God in our hearts and homes. We may not be able to gather for Mass in the House of God, but God instills these habits in us so that our actions may be oriented according to the will of the Father who only wants our good. According to Catholic theology, when we accept God’s will and habits, they become manifest through faith, hope and charity.

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and in all that He has revealed to us, all that the Holy Church proposes to us, because He is the truth itself. We pray to God: “Lord, I believe, but increase my faith!” As believers we must strive to know and do God’s will. He speaks to us through signs. And he asks us for an active, creative and supportive faith.

The virtue of hope corresponds to the yearning for happiness placed by God in the heart of every man. It protects us from discouragement. The impulse of hope preserves selflessness and leads to the bliss of charity. When Christians do not allow themselves to be invaded by discouragement, they cannot fail. God will not leave us without His help.

Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God over all things. This is a central commandment of our faith. We cannot say that we believe in God if we do not show our faith with works. This is a time to do good. As Pope Francis asks, “Let us ask the Lord, at this particularly difficult time for all of us, to rediscover within us his presence that loves and sustains us, and thus bearers of his tenderness to all who surround us with works of closeness and good.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has taught us to act and live out our faith. A traditional list of immediate “basic needs” is food (including water), shelter and clothing.

In March when Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez ordered flight restrictions, border closures and strict quarantine, my heart sank. One week after the presidential order, many poor people began to knock on the rectory door, asking for food and cleaning supplies like bleach, dish soap and hand soap.

As a Divine Word Missionary, I cannot ignore the needs of our brothers and sisters. With the help of goodhearted people, we began our work of charity. We handed out bags of food and supplies and cooked “olla popular” in our various outstation chapel communities. The needs in our parish community is growing each day. We will continue for as long as we can.

Let us increase our prayers for one another so as not to fall in the face of the ravages of this storm. Let us prayer to overcome the fears that paralyze. Let us open our hearts so that the Lord may calm them.

With His help, faith, hope and charity will be the antidotes for successfully overcoming this crisis. Let us ask for the intercession of St. Joseph, protector of the family, and of our mother Mary Most Holy. Let us pray the rosary and novenas as a family. We entrust ourselves to the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupé to be our defense and refuge against this epidemic.

Hold fast to the life that fosters faith, charity, and hope

By Deacon Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

When we look back and think about things that have transpired during the pandemic, what thoughts and feelings come over us? The daily news about COVID-19 shows us the unprecedented and excruciating reality of our times; it leads us to ponder what kind of future lies ahead of us.

Many important events on my planner are now marked cancelled or postponed: long-distant races, the SPRED (Special Religious Development) ministry dinner dance fundraiser, the baptism of friends’ children, the Easter Triduum celebration in the parish and graduation in May.

I had hoped that my family and friends could join me to celebrate the milestones of my vocation journey. To my dismay, the priesthood ordination has been postponed without knowing when and how to celebrate it. My inner fear gave rise to more questions about life and vocation. Does it still make sense to become priest for empty churches? Does faith have a future in an online church?

The worldwide pandemic has affected each one of us in various ways. All of us are urged to be morally responsible to take care of one another by abiding with the guidelines of stay-at-home, social distancing, work from home, shelter in place, flatten the curve and enhance community quarantine.

The guidelines were implemented for our protection and safety; yet, it also makes us feel justifiably worried. Surely each one of us, depending on own story, feels something that no words can describe. It’s an indescribable feeling that belongs to each of us alone. It is a feeling that I thought I would only encounter when I was close to the edge of death.

I brought my feeling of fear with me to my five-day ordination retreat – the only activity on my calendar that was not postponed or cancelled. During the first week of Easter, I spent this stay-at-home spiritual exercise by contemplating the Resurrection narratives in the Scriptures.

I was drawn to the persons who witnessed the Risen Christ: the women hurriedly running away from the empty tomb; Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb; the two troubled disciples walking on the road to Emmaus; and disciples who panicked, hid and were frightened when Jesus unexpectedly stood in their midst.

The apostles did not presume to inquire “Who are you?” when Jesus invited them to eat a meal with him after their fishing; and the doubting Thomas refused to believe in the Resurrected Jesus until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.

At different levels, each of them was filled with fear. It was not the kind of fear that accompanied the complex emotions of anger, confusion and indifference. Their fear was the result of Divine Providence, a freely given gift from the Risen Lord that led them to and made them rely on their faith, love and hope.

I recalled the profoundly moving image of a shepherd taking care a flock when Pope Francis gave the special Urbi et Orbi blessing at Rome. He stood as a witness and servant of the Good Shepherd Christ Jesus in a deserted St. Peter’s Square with a steady rain falling.

He spoke to us through different means of modern communication; he led us to Jesus’ question: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Pope Francis has proclaimed again and again the message of God’s unconditional love and has urged us all “to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.”

While experts strive to collect and rely on data to understand how and why the pandemic is happening, we are tasked to reawaken our virtues of faith, love and hope.

We, the Church, the people of God, are missionary disciples. As frontliners, even though fearful, we must serve unselfishly to make sure that we do not become lifeless. We have a duty to make our Church community come fully alive.

We need to let the heart of the Risen Jesus Christ live in our hearts and in the hearts of all. Let the Easter mystery touch your life with the healing power of Jesus’ love. Seek constant growth by putting into action the great work and teaching of Jesus. Free yourself from longing for only the passing things in life. Hold fast to the life Christ Jesus has given to us so that we come to the eternal gifts He promised all who follow him.

We do not know how long we will be in this situation. Faith, charity and hope make our waiting more worthwhile and meaningful. For us who are free from virus infection, let us be grateful and keep ourselves safe and healthy. At the same time, let us be merciful by nurturing and offering kindness.

Let us renew our family life, community life and prayer life. Let us grab our planners and organize concrete ways to live out our Christian life and vocation.

Living a courageous life in the middle of a pandemic

Divine Word Missionaries and guests gathered in Spain before the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Hoang Nguyen SVD

It is time for me to adapt to another way of life. I am a Divine Word seminarian who is living and studying in Spain. This country has been my host country for the past seven months. 

I live in a community in Dueñas, Palencia, which is two hours north of Madrid. Now that my formal studies are completed, I continue learning new things at home. With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in Spain last month, I have heard many heartbreaking stories. However, I also have heard stories that inspire and encourage. 

As a student learning Spanish, I read as much as I can every day from whatever I can find. I make a practice of finding a story in the newspaper that I can share with one of the priests with whom I live. I have shared story after story about COVID-19 and people’s fear of the deadly virus. Finally, one of my confreres reminded me that there are positive stories too. 

 My priest instructor’s comment reminded me of what I learned at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. It is so important to have a balance of stories about any place. Even though the virus has brought sadness to the world, this virus has awakened us to a new consciousness. 

We cannot just sit around and wait for something good to happen. Most of us, in fact, are making a better reality at home, work and in our communities. I have seen neighbors waving at me from their front yard for the first time since I arrived in Spain. 

People in other towns, who live in apartments, come out at night to stand on their balconies and sing to each other, talk to each other from a distance, and wave while wishing each other well. Indeed, they are connected. Seeing these positive people on TV gives me hope for better days. 

Though people practice social distancing, they are still in solidarity with one another. In other words, people are united to fight this war against the COVID-19 by being supportive of others and collaborative with one another. 

Social distancing is so contrary to being a Spaniard. Since I arrived in the country, I have observed people on the street converse with each other from a close distance. When a woman and man meet each other, they often give each other kisses on both cheeks. But now, kisses and close distance are gone. However, what is not gone is their being supportive of each other. 

One writer, Nuria Labari, shares her vision in El País, a Spanish-language daily newspaper in Madrid. She wrote, “Cuando una sociedad es solidaria como la nuestra lo está siendo, en tonces sentimos que formamos parte de algo más grande y más importante que nosotros missos.”

In English, it reads, “When a society is as supportive as ours is, we feel that we are part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.”

Nuria went on to say, “Give us courage to face life. To also face disease and even this virus. Even to be better persons.” What I have learned from people like Nuria is that after this pandemic virus, no one will be afraid to face something as deadly as this virus again. 

Schools have been closed. Streets are empty, but homes are full. The people usually get together at home to play dominoes and card games, like Chinchón, which is a famous matching card game in Spain. 

Nuria writes that the children are learning something fundamental these days without school. I agree with Nuria because whenever there is a problem, there is always something good that we can learn from it. 

Like me, these young people probably have a lot of free time to learn new skills at home since they do not have homework assignments to do. According to Nuria, “Our children are experiencing an active and determined solidarity capable of changing things to protect the weakest.” 

I really admire those who come out on their apartment balconies in big cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla to applaud medical workers. In this way, the local people are helping medical professionals fight COVID-19 by being supportive of them. Like the local people, I have to stay indoors and keep healthy for the sake of others and for these medical professionals. 

Things may get worse, but one thing I know for sure is that I am still learning new things in these difficult times. The people are my teachers. I have no doubt that we are going to get through this together. 

I cannot wait to wear a shirt that says, “I Survived COVID-19” with the local people. I cannot wait to celebrate our victory with these people. I cannot wait to hear young people say, “I am stronger than ever. I am more fearless than ever. I love serving other people more than ever. And I am more faithful than ever.” So far in this lockdown, in addition to noticing the negative newspaper stories, I also have come to learn from the local people to stay positive even in the most difficult situations, to be supportive of others, especially of those who are vulnerable, and to appreciate those who are still working out there on the frontlines, fighting for our lives and our future. Let us stay positive together.

Divine Word seminarian Hoang Nguyen is in Spain, fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training, which is part of his religious formation. Currently, Spain has the second more cases of COVID-19 in Europe.