While COVID has taken a heavy toll on mental and spiritual as well as physical health since the pandemic started, the Church in Australia is placing a renewed focus on mental and spiritual health over the next year. With much of the general population facing unhealthy levels of isolation, opening a discussion on mental health and support has never been more timely.

Below, Melbourne priests explore creative ways of offering solace and ministering to those left isolated by the virus, as Australia grapples with the mental health impacts of COVID.

‘Sickness often isolates and marginalises people,’ says Fr Anthony Doran of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ringwood. ‘Whatever we can do to alleviate and eliminate these feelings of isolation, is worth doing.’

As many Victorians grapple with the limitations on social contact under Stage 4 restrictions, social isolation is a major challenge.

The fear of not being able to spend time with a loved one when they are sick and possibly in their final hours, is particularly close under the city-wide lockdown.

However, there is light and hope amidst this grim reality.

Across the Archdiocese, Melbourne's clergy struggle to meet the surging demands of care to COVID patients and to their loved ones.

‘Often, priests and pastoral or spiritual care workers might be the only non-medical person a sick person might encounter, attending to needs beyond the physical or medical,’ says Fr Anthony. ‘So our ministry is more important than ever.’

With current restrictions in place, however, many priests can only visit patients physically if they are dying.

‘In ministering to Covid-19 positive patients it is essential we understand the nature of the virus, the precautions being taken, the reason and purpose of hygiene practices and personal protection and the teamwork with hospital staff required to minister safely,’ explains Fr Tony Kerin, parish priest at Greater Box Hill Parish.

‘Even the administration of the sacrament of anointing has had to be modified to avoid skin to skin contact,’ he mentions, adding that the chaplain’s role in ministering to both staff and patients during these times are much needed when the ward’s staff are stretched beyond regular capacity.

‘It is important to be an encouraging presence rather than a liability on the ward.’

And as for the sick, ‘it has been challenging, certainly,’ says Fr Anthony Doran. ‘But we have made better use of telephone ministry, connecting people via the phone,’ he says, adding that family members have helped those who are unwell connect to live-streamed Masses via smartphone or tablet.

‘As parishes have become more adept at these methods of keeping in touch, we have been able to reach out to more people.’

Over at St Peter and St Paul’s Parish in South Melbourne, Fr John Spiteri says he still tries to focus on ministering to the sick during these times.

‘When working with the sick in our difficult times one needs to put time away for them,’ advises Fr John. ‘One needs to be sensitive, patient and understanding, this is accomplished through prayer put into practice,’ he says.

With a large ministry in South Melbourne, Fr John Spiteri mentions that these last few months have changed the way he relates to unemployed parishioners and those who cannot access Mass, confession and more.

‘My biggest challenge is not being able to visit those in need,’ he says.

‘I am not very technically minded so I don’t live-stream Mass, but I have learned to make short videos for our parishioners that may assist them in a small way,’ he says.

‘The fact of being unable to celebrate the Eucharist is the biggest challenge,’ Fr John says.

In Gladstone Park, Fr Dishan says a new and beautiful trend has been emerging in his parish.

‘Parishioners are administering to parishioners,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed parishioners doing their bit to look out for other parishioners that can be more vulnerable and lonely.’

‘To give you an example, one of our parishioners called in to check on a widow just to make sure that she’s cared for,’ Fr Dishan says.

With concerns around loneliness amongst seniors in their parish increasing, Good Shepherd in Gladstone Park has made a positive start.

‘We were wondering what to do and one of the ideas we floated was why don’t we have a drop-in room for our seniors?’ Fr Dishan adds. ‘As they drop in, they can have a chat to someone and if no one is there, it’s still a place away from their home and fairly close to the office.’

‘We’re working really hard to get the room to look like a comfortable lounge room.’

Fr Anthony Doran also sees there is an opportunity to reach out to one another.

‘I hope that we might be able to recruit more and more people to our ministry of pastoral care of the sick,’ he says.

‘While only a priest may anoint, any member of the faithful can – and should – visit the sick and elderly to be the visible mercy and the compassion of God to our world.’