In a single day, Father José Ángel Hernández anointed and administered the last rites to five people facing imminent death. Since he left the parish of Our Lady of Fatima, roughly one year ago, the Mexican priest spends most of his time in Macau’s largest hospital wards, but the second half of December and the first half of January were particularly frantic and demanding, both physically and spiritually.
In the early weeks of the year, local hospitals struggled to cope with the city’s biggest Covid-19 outbreak, Father Hernández recalls: “A large number of people became ill at the same time, many elderly people in particular. I had to be prepared to be called at any time, whenever my presence was needed. I was, in a certain way, expecting this to happen and, when that moment came, what was happening was that I would go to the hospital, I would return home and before I got there, I was already getting a new call from another family, summoning me to return to the hospital,” the Mexican missionary – a member of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) – confided with O Clarim on the sideline of yet another visit to Kiang Wu’s hospital ward.
“In spite of everything, I felt God was there with me. Whenever I visit patients that are on their deathbeds , I feel His strength, the love that He transmits me. I feel that He guides me and that he works through me, even if, from a human perspective, all this was overwhelming. In a single day, I anointed five dying people,” Father Hernández discloses.
Officially, until last Wednesday, February 8, 121 people had died in the Special Administrative Region from COVID-19, but the sudden explosion of Covid-19 cases registered since early December prompted Macau’s largest hospital – Conde de São Januário General Hospital and Kiang Wu – to develop extraordinary efforts to cope with the outbreak. Wards and emergency rooms were packed with patients and the excess mortality registered in December alone – the total number of deaths was 773, almost four times higher than the previous month – points out to a much more severe impact than the one the government bureaucracy allows to perceive.
The scenario is confirmed by Father Hernández. For well over a month, the Mexican priest had his hands full with anointings, baptisms and funerals. “The conditions worsened before Christmas, when many people became sick, most of whom tested positive for COVID-19. It took some time for things to slow down,” the SVD missionary recalls. “In a single day, I went to Kiang Wu Hospital at the request of someone who had been a parishioner of mine in Fatima. She was dying. Another patient there, at Kiang Wu, wanted to be baptized and then I prepared this person to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. She was in the critically ill ward and I baptized her later on that day. That very same day I went to Conde de São Januário to anoint a person who was hospitalized there,” Father Hernández told O Clarim.
The Power of the Sacrament of Holy Unction in Times of Illness and Death
The Catholic Church professes and teaches that the Sacrament of Holy Unction is one of the seven sacraments of the New Testament. Instituted by Jesus Christ, it is hinted at in Saint Mark’s Gospel and it was recommended to the faithful – and promulgated – by Saint James, apostle and brother of the Lord. The Anointing of the Sick is offered for the healing of soul and body and for the forgiveness of sins and it is administered to those who are in their deathbed, anointing them on the forehead and hands.
The gesture has the power to redeem the sins of those who are no longer able to submit to the sacrament of Confession and constitutes, for many, a final opportunity to find comfort before their last breath.
“The sacrament of Holy Unction is a way to convey to them the grace of the Lord. Some of them are still able to confess, but most of them no longer have that ability. This sacrament, however, also has the grace to forgive their sins and to prepare them to meet the Lord. It is, in fact, an extraordinary grace, because it offers them the guarantee that the Lord will receive them. Most of the people I administer Holy Unction end up dying,” Father Hernández admits.
Confronted with imminent death, many of the sick to whom the Mexican priest offers a last ray of solace and the promise of eternal happiness, end up asking to be baptized in their remaining days of life. As brief as it may be, the discovery of the wholeness of God is intense, both for those that are dying and for their bereaved families.
“Catholics, of course, ask me to administer them the sacraments. But there are others who, sometimes, request my help and ask me to bless them. Even though they are not Catholics, they approve the blessing and are receptive to what it means. Some of these people have no religion and I invite them to open their hearts to the transcendence of the Lord. I ask them if they want eternal happiness. Then I ask them where they think they will find it. Here on Earth? Or in Heaven?” the Societas Verbi Divini missionary says.
“The curious thing is if I tell them about eternal happiness, they will listen carefully. If, instead, I mention about eternal life, if I tell them that they can aspire to eternal life, they reject the idea. Many of them consider life to be a source of suffering. If, alternatively, I tell them about eternal happiness, they show greater openness and are predisposed to listen. In the end, some of these people ask to be baptized,” the Mexican priest reveals.
Fr Hernández lives up to his name. “Ángel” is the Castilian word for angel – whenever, in addition to offering spiritual comfort to those that are dying, he manages to bring them closer to their salvation path. Ask any priest and he will tell you there is no greatest joy: “Thanks to the Lord, I was given the opportunity to accompany and guide some of these sick people who ended up asking me to be baptized. After they are baptized, I administered the Holy Unction and some of them died shortly afterwards. When we provide this kind of assistance, in the Chinese tradition there’s a habit, on the part of the families, to ask the same priest to be in charge of the funeral services,” the former parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima explains.
“So, in addition to administering the Sacrament of Holy Unction, I have also done a great deal of funerals,” the SVD missionary says.