Despite risks, priests, nuns in India take care of people’s pastoral needs

“Whatever be the risk, we must take care of the pastoral needs of the people," said a Catholic priest in India

“We are passing through unimaginable suffering,” said Father George Manimala, senior priest of the Delhi Archdiocese, summing up the impact of COVID-19 on the nation and the Church.

“We have had more than two dozen funerals of parish members since Easter,” he said.

“Whatever be the risk, we must take care of the pastoral needs of the people. Half of our 600 families have been hit by COVID,” said Father Manimala, vicar of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health, one of the archdiocese’s oldest parishes.

With three major hospitals in its territory, the parish has also hundreds of unregistered members.

“Many are in shock, especially the elderly. Some have yet to come to terms with the tragedy,” said the priest.

“We try to console and reassure them with support. We have also online rosary and prayers to express solidarity with those suffering.”

Delhi made headlines after hundreds died of COVID, unable to get admitted to crowded hospitals; dozens of gasping patients who died at hospitals due to the lack of oxygen supply.

With crematoriums full, Delhi witnessed stunning scenes of cremations on public grounds.

Even the conservative death figures in India has been steadily going up.

A patient wearing an oxygen mask is wheeled inside a COVID-19 hospital for treatment in Ahmedabad, India, April 26. (Photo by Amit Dave/Reuters)

As of Friday, May 28, India recorded 179,770 fresh COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, the lowest daily count in 44 days, as infections continued to decrease in the country.

The daily death toll, however, remained over the 3,000-mark, with 3,558 deaths.

India’s total cases now stand at 27,547,705, while total fatalities are at 318,821.

The deadly pandemic has claimed the lives of several bishops, dozens of priests and nuns and hundreds of lay people in a country that is reporting more than half of the 800,000 new daily COVID cases worldwide.

The death of as many as ten priests on May 12 in different parts of the country—ages 34 to 80—illustrates how the second wave of the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the Indian Church.

While the western state of Gujarat reported the deaths of five Jesuits on April 17, half a dozen senior priests of the Thrissur Archdiocese in Kerala died May on 1 and 2. At least 117 Catholic priests in India died in the 33 days between April 10 and May 14, 2021.

“The situation is really frightening,” said Salesian Father Edward Thomas, president of the Conference of Religious India – Bangalore chapter.

“We have lost so many of our colleagues and I am lucky to have survived,” said the priest who has recovered from COVID infection.

A man reacts before the cremation of his relative, who died from the coronavirus disease, on the banks of the river Ganges at Garhmukteshwar in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, on May 6, 2021. (Reuters photo)

A dozen male and women religious have died in Bangalore, which has been reporting more than 500 deaths since early May.

With families struggling to bury the dead, the Bangalore Archdiocese has reactivated an innovative program launched during first COVID wave in 2020, to facilitate burials.

Father Santhosh Royan, who heads the challenging mission, told Aid to the Church in Need: “Our volunteers have so far facilitated the burial and cremations of more than 800 people, 300 of them Catholics, picking up dead bodies even from homes.”

“At least 50 deaths of our people have come to my attention,” said Bishop Raphael Thattil, who heads the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church’s Shamsabad Diocese.

“It has been an awful time for us,” said Medical Mission Sister Juliana D’Cunha, administrator of the Kurji Holy Family Hospital in Patna, capital of Bihar state.

“Lack of regular oxygen supply was the worst we had to face,” said the nun.

“In most cases, the patients had not been tested, and they took it to be a simple flu. By the time they were brought in, their lungs had been damaged with little chance of recovery,” the nun said.

Three priests and three nuns died at the hospital in recent weeks.

“The government has entrusted us with the task of caring also for children of parents undergoing COVID treatment,” said Sister Denin David, who is based at the Jesus Mary Joseph hospital in Guntur, in southern Andhra state.

“Often we had to turn away patients as we could admit only 125 at a time. Yet they kept calling and coming. I have never seen human suffering like this,” said Sister Denin.

With non-Christian staff often reluctant to work in COVID wards, Redemptorist Father Thomas Abraham, executive director of the Catholic Healthcare Association of India , reported that some of the country’s 500 Catholic hospitals are employing volunteers, including nuns, in COVID wards, to deliver food and medicine, and to comfort patients who are cut off from their families.

“Wherever possible, our hospitals are doing their best to console COVID patients. They are in emotional stress, too,” said Father Abraham, who himself has recovered from COVID. – with a report from Aid to the Church in Need

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