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.

La visita a los enfermos: Visit the sick


Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang delivers Communion to Mrs. Francisca.

By Frater Viet Quoc Hoang SVD

As part of the formation process, Divine Word Missionaries spend one to three years in a Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP). Through CTP, they become immersed in a culture that is different from the one in which they were raised. The author of this reflection, Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang, lived as a missionary in Paraguay for two years. He returned to the United States this fall to resume studies at Catholic Theological Union. In this piece, he shares his thoughts on the importance of ministering with the sick and dying.

Everyone, at some time in life, experiences illness and suffering. At other times to a greater or lesser degree, we feel affected by the realities of other people’s illness and suffering. Most doctors often emphasize that abandonment during the time of illness can be worse than lack of medical care and medicines. Another person’s presence, proximity, and interest can be the best medicine.

Volunteers Luis and Rocio check a patient’s blood pressures.

All Christians, according to their abilities, should take care of the sick—visiting and providing for their needs. The care of the sick and suffering, especially loved ones, is difficult. People sometimes flee from this responsibility to avoid feeling powerless; because to be near and see the pain of others—the suffering and tears—and being unable to do anything to help can be overwhelming. However, visiting the sick can help us to accept and cope with the suffering around us.

Reflecting on my two years in Paraguay, I found that the ministry of visiting the elderly and sick has deepened my understanding of the works of mercy, especially the importance of visiting the sick.

After my language studies in the capital city of Asuncion, I was placed at Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart of Jesus) parish in a city of about 22,000 people named after Doctor Juan León Mallorquín. It was a full-immersion pastoral experience. At first, I was overwhelmed by the need for pastoral visits, especially to the elderly and the sick.

The Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS), who run one of the local high schools, require their seniors to participate in social outreach projects as part of the graduation requirements. A few high school seniors asked me to help them with their projects. I hesitated to accept this invitation at first because my language skills were limited. But then, placing my trust in the Divine Word, I listened to the encouraging words of my pastor, vicar, and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and accepted the invitation to serve.

Oftentimes the visit, this small act of mercy, can give a breather to dedicated caregivers. Usually, not much is needed. Sometimes, it requires only a visit to an elderly or sick person—making conversation and offering assistance by helping with a blood pressure reading, grocery shopping, cleaning the house or reading a newspaper or book to them. If this simple task is done with love, a miracle usually happens. The sick person feels healthier.

Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang offers Communion to a patient and her husband.

Sometimes to calm our conscience and avoid the feeling of powerlessness, we say, “What can I do? Others do so much better.” We might think , “The patient gets tired fast, and if another person has already visited her or him, why do I still need to go?”

But, we cannot escape our Christian responsibility. Anyone can be a volunteer and help the sick. Depending on availability, capacity and personal preferences, we can choose a volunteer opportunity that best fits the rhythm of our lives.

The CTP experience taught me an additional lesson: the difference between being a volunteer and being a missionary. As a Divine Word Missionary, I need to be mindful not only to be a servant for people but to be with them. God’s love, grace and presence are already among the people whom I have been blessed to know.

Missionary work, involves living among the people and seeing the grace of God within them. Through His grace, we are called to open our hearts and eyes to recognize that there are so many people around us who carry the burdens of illness and abandonment. They need our attention and loving care. Whether they are our own family members and neighbors or the people in the streets, we are called to give Christian witness.