PORTLAND---“In so many ways, I don’t know the last time I felt this much like a priest.”
Fr. Paul Marquis sits in his office at Mercy Hospital, waiting. He often notices how the usually busy corridors outside have grown quiet recently. Strict visitor regulations are in place, and staff schedules have been drastically altered to cover any possibility of a surge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The wait is never long for a hospital chaplain. A call comes. A patient with COVID-19 needs to see a priest. Fr. Marquis reaches over to his large, plastic hood and begins the elaborate process to make a simple visit. These are extraordinary times for everyone, including all priests.
“I have my own hood, gown, and gloves,” said Fr. Marquis, who has protective equipment assigned to him. “The hood plugs in from the back to a generator that pushes filtered air into it.”
He prepares, with all safety gear in place, to anoint the sick. This sacrament, in which Christ is welcomed as physician and healer, and comforter and consoler, is healing hearts and serving as a reminder to many in need, thanks to the dedication Maine priests, that in times of difficulty, God is with us.
The delivery of the sacrament, however, has changed. As Fr. Marquis arrives at the room, he places a large container of holy oil in the hallway where it will stay.
“The old way with a metal container and a cotton ball can’t be done,” he said. “You’d be bringing COVID-19 from patient to patient.”
Instead, he dips a cotton ball into the oil, walks in the room near the patient, prays, and then anoints her.
On some calls, the patients are conscious and able to talk to him. On others, they are not.
“I had one that was on a ventilator. When she first arrived, she said “Oh, don’t come in right now, Father,’ very nicely,” said Fr. Marquis. “She had been anointed during a previous visit to the hospital recently. She had watched Masses at home prior to coming into the hospital, so it wasn’t like she wasn’t prepared. I eventually got called in and she was no longer conscious, but I was able to come in and give her the Apostolic Pardon.”
Fr. Marquis has learned that each case is unique, and different hospitals can have different policies, requiring flexibility and creativity.
“At Maine Medical Center, in certain units, the priest can’t go into the room. They put the phone next to the ear of an unconscious COVID-19 patient who was on a ventilator and I prayed as many prayers as I could. They opened the door a foot and I could stand there and give him the Apostolic Pardon, over the phone and sort of yelling it in. It’s tough.”
With so many moving parts in his life right now, all set against the backdrop of an historic pandemic, Fr. Marquis relies on the hugs of his dog, Bella, and a simple truth to carry him through.
“Whether the ears can hear it or not, the soul is probably still listening. We just have to trust the mercy of God and that God can provide.”
Hours later, the alarm rings and another day begins for Fr. Marquis, who has no idea what the day will bring before he finds his way to bed again.
There are still certainties, although they are now normal parts of a daily routine that didn’t exist six weeks ago.
At 8:15 a.m., the Facebook Live button is pressed and Fr. Marquis, who is also parochial vicar at Parish of the Holy Eucharist (Falmouth, Yarmouth, Freeport, Gray) celebrates a daily Mass with a viewership numbering in the hundreds. Public Masses are temporarily suspended during the pandemic.
“The weekend Masses we have been live-streaming from the parish have been remarkable in terms of the people watching,” said Fr. Marquis, referencing the Masses that have drawn between 1,200-1,800 viewers per Mass online. “Our Divine Mercy Sunday celebration had 566 viewers, and that’s if everyone watched it by themselves. It’s incredible. People are sitting at home who wouldn’t have gone to Mass and are saying, ‘Hey, it’s Sunday. I’m going to participate in Mass.’”
The numbers are sometimes overwhelming, but the power of faith and evangelization they represent are comforting.
“When you look at the numbers, it’s the largest congregation I’ve ever had,” laughed Fr. Marquis. “You just don’t want to upset anybody by saying the wrong thing!”
Soon, it’s off to the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth, where Fr. Marquis is regularly offering confession, at first in a drive-through format that had cars lining up into Main Street. Now, thanks to a makeshift, outdoor confessional adjacent to the parking lot, Fr. Marquis can sit on one side of a partition, sometimes joined by Bella in a dog bed, while on the other side, the penitent rest on a kneeler.
Traffic has been steady, even when the temperature has dipped and rain has fallen.
“When you have somebody who says it’s been 25 years since I’ve been to confession, it’s interesting,” said Fr. Marquis. “People have come through the line and said ‘When I see how important it is to you to be here and willing to do this, I have to ask myself why it isn’t important to me.’ I’ve had people say that. When they see we are willing to do this, they realize it must be important and that’s why they’re here. Some of them say they don’t think they’ve been taking their faith seriously enough. People are sitting in the house and for some of them, it’s become an opportunity to look at their faith again.”
Offering confession has extended past the allotted hours in the parking lot.
“Sometimes I’ll get calls when I’m at the hospital and I’ll tell people to meet me after work. We’ll do a quick drive-through confession line in the parking lot of the cathedral. Anything we can do to help.
His phone has been as busy as he has. Fr. Marquis frequently makes and receives calls to non-COVID patients who are subject to some of the same visitor restrictions that are in place in many COVID-19 units.
“One patient said that my phone call made her day,” he said with a smile. “I’ve also called families who have members with COVID-19 that they can’t visit due to safety restrictions. There are arrangements made for families to video conference into isolation areas to speak to people. We coordinate those things, too.”
He’s been looking forward to getting outside and enjoying some spring air with Bella, but the familiar ring of the phone fills the air. This time with a call to visit someone at their home in hospice care.
“There have been a couple of these the last couple days,” he said. “People who are dying at home who want to receive the sacraments.”
One would think his time in the car moving between request to request would provide rare silence in his life, but not so.
“As I’m driving, I’ll offer the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I find that I’m offering it for those dying patients, especially for those dying without the benefit of the sacraments or without the comfort of family.”
The pandemic and its restrictions on gatherings have introduced Zoom, a video conferencing platform, to Fr. Marquis, a key discovery considering that he helps with several support groups associated with the parish.
“That’s been great. Everyone just comes on and there we are,” he said. “I’m using Zoom for all types of things daily. I never used Zoom before this!”
Fr. Marquis’ daily existence is being played out by priests from Kittery to Fort Kent. It is a time of adaptation through the continued living out of their call. In seeking out new ways to keep connected to their parishioners, Maine priests have connected with the wider world in the process.
“The priest presides in prayer and is the image of Christ who calls us to unity and service,” said Bishop Robert Deeley. “There is much good that is happening and I take every opportunity to express my gratitude for the service of our priests, who help make Jesus present day in and day out throughout the year. We pray that God will continue to guide us and help us to strengthen each other.”
At the end of each day, Fr. Marquis prays the rosary on Facebook Live on his Facebook page, inviting parishioners and community members to join him. These days, there have been plenty of people for whom to pray.
“When I pray the rosary, I pray for nurses, doctors, therapists, phlebotomists, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, maintenance workers, dietary workers, EMTs, police, anybody who might, because of their work, be brought into contact with people with COVID,” he said. “We also pray for people who work in grocery stores, prepare food, or deliver food from restaurants. It’s a different world.”
But, fortunately, in these uncertain times, some things stay the same.
“Bella still loves to go out for a walk,” said Fr. Marquis as he got ready to make her happy. “There are no days off. Celebrating Masses, praying the rosary for live-streaming every night, offering drive-through confessions, in all these ways, priesthood is being viewed by people as essential. That’s beautiful.”