Barring Clergy at Mass Casualty Events

People instinctively recognize that, at moments of life and death, clergymen ought to be there. There are no atheists in foxholes. People rejoice at the consoling presence of those priests.

Fr. Mychal F. Judge, OFM, Catholic Chaplain to the New York Fire Department died ministering to the dying on 9/11.

A woman had a car accident in Missouri. Although the road was blocked, a mysterious stranger came along and offered her spiritual assistance, credited even with helping save her life. For a day or two, the press speculated: was it an angel from heaven who came to minister to her? When the news finally came, the story was a bit less spectacular: her stranger was a Catholic priest, who happened upon her while driving from one church to another to celebrate Mass.

That woman received great solace because of his spiritual ministrations. So, undoubtedly, did the victims of 9/11, as Father Mychael Judge ministered to the dying, only to die himself when pieces of the World Trade Center collapsed on him. Indeed, the photograph of the dead priest being carried out of the ruins by five men amidst dust and rubble, a picture dubbed “American Pietà,” is considered one of the iconic photographs of that day. It is worthwhile noting that, on 9/11, it was a Catholic priest who exemplified the Christian virtue, “No greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13).

People instinctively recognize that, at moments of life and death, clergymen ought to be there. There are no atheists in foxholes. People rejoice at the consoling presence of those priests.

Unfortunately, in 2013, 1 a very different scene played out in Boston. It was reported that although priests in adjacent parishes rushed to the scene of the Boston Marathon Massacre to anoint the dying, local police denied them access to the bomb victims. 2 They had to stand outside the yellow tape lines. According to one on-line commentary, although there was a young boy dying nearby, the priests could not reach him. They were reduced to standing outside the police line, handing out refreshments.

Boston police have not commented on the “no priest” policy. Was it an aberration of the moment, a decision made by somebody on the spot? Was it an official policy? We have yet to find out. The reporter who brought us the story even threw local Massachusetts authorities a bone, writing “in light of the devastation in Boston, the denial of access to clergy is a trifling thing, and it might even have been an individual’s error.”3

Yet “denial of access to clergy”—especially at the hour of our death—is no trifling thing. As Catholics, our tradition is sacramental, i.e., symbolic and physical.

It seems to me that there are two lessons to be learned from what happened in Boston: (1) was there an official policy on clergy access (and what did it imply)? and (2) what are the policies where you live?

Crises and large-scale disasters are a fact of life. In recent years, American cities and towns have been ravaged by hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Large-scale accidents occur. One of my favorite spots along northbound I-95 is at milepost 105 in Maryland, near Cecil/Havre de Grace. Looking out over the road is a statue of the Blessed Mother, with the inscription “Our Lady of the Highways, Pray for Us!” Few people know how the statue got there. The Oblates of Mary, who own the property, erected the statue to commemorate a 1968 crash of about twenty vehicles in fog, which killed three people. Priests from the house rushed to help the wounded and dying on a stretch of highway popular with truckers.4

Boston reminds us that today America is also at war with terrorism. Terrorists have struck in New York, Washington, and Boston, and threatened to blow up a Detroit-bound plane. How many plots have been foiled only some intelligence services might know. But if Americans of an earlier generation worried about the threat of nuclear war, today’s Americans need to reckon with the scourge of international terrorism.

All of which means: memento mori!

Clergy have traditionally been recognized as essential parts of the response to crises. Have we now decided that clergy are not first responders? That their ministry is unessential? That only physical life is worth saving? That spiritual life is a private affair that has no relevance in the midst of a terrorist attack?

If this is true, tell me: I wouldn’t recognize my country if that’s the case. Even more important, if this is true, tell me why.

In response to an earlier version of these observations, 5 a commentator claimed that police had to be careful about whom to admit to what is a potential crime scene, because there’s no way of knowing whether somebody is a real clergyman, or a terrorist masquerading as a priest. I think that argument is a bit far-fetched. If somebody wanted to infiltrate a scene, why pretend to be a clergyman? One could also masquerade as a first aid worker or a doctor. I can’t imagine the police refusing the services of a physician on the scene (“is there a doctor in the house?”). Even if they have to be careful, a physician has medical ID. What about clergy?

One might say that priests can pray without actual tangible contact on their own outside the police cordon. As I said above, Catholic ministry is physical and tactile. The government has no business imposing an alien model of disembodied ministry on us.

Yet that is what happened in Boston. Pray—at a distance.

We should also ask, however, whether there is something else at work here: a subtle but invidious secularism that will clear every public square everywhere of religion. The “real” work at a mass casualty belongs to the police and rescue workers; clergy need not apply. Civil disasters are Caesar’s affair, not God’s (although, from Job to Voltaire and onward, God often gets blamed for them). What happened in Boston could be interpreted as a kind of “keep religion in the sacristy” policy—keep it outside the police cordon sanitaire, private, without an “official” scene looking like it gives any acknowledgement, much less preference, to religion.

One likely answer is that local authorities need to control a scene, and a large influx of clergy could mean that chaos ensues. Again, I suggest such a hypothetical scenario is unrealistic—there aren’t that many clergy around anyway—as well as discriminatory, because in the name of a theoretical, dubious, and unrealistic threat, real people are being denied real access to priests and ministers at an existentially significant moments. If that’s the case, then that interpretation needs to be challenged, fought, and overturned: when people are dying, we should not “solve” any potential access issue simply by secularizing the scene of the event.

Whatever the reason for the Boston decision, we should find out what it was, and have a public discussion of what happened there. That said, one never knows where a tragedy can strike.

Catholic priests have traditionally been actively involved in supporting local police, firemen, and rescue workers. They are often chaplains to these services. For some, perhaps, it’s a minimal or honorary position: they celebrate a regular Mass for the personnel, have a parish breakfast for them, or something. But many priests are often actively involved with these services: I think, for example, of Father Robert Rippy, the Rector of St. Thomas More Cathedral in Arlington, Virginia, who often rides with the County Police.

Local pastors should immediately get in touch with their local, county, and state police to ask what is the local policy about clergy access at an accident scene. If that policy impedes access, they should also publicize it, so that people can correct it. A coordinated, diocese-wide effort to clarify local policies might in some cases be very worthwhile. Chancery officials should think about that. Again, if there are obstructionist policies, people should know that—and Catholics should make a public stink.

But, apart from the question of ministerial access, perhaps it’s also an opportunity to examine how well we are ministering to those who minister to the public through these first provider services. Are we providing good chaplain services to local police, firefighters, and rescue workers? Do we know their problems? Maybe they need more spiritual help and counseling. Maybe there are some coping problems that lead, perhaps, to problems at home or to alcohol issues. Maybe they just need some clergy support in getting the local government to fund another ambulance. Maybe they have some racial or youth problems that clergymen, ecumenically, working together might help defuse. Maybe, like Fr. Rippy, it might be worthwhile spending an evening with the local police, firefighters, or first aid people on the job.

Local police and rescue agencies have traditionally conducted joint practice exercises to hone their responses to mass casualty events, e.g., train crashes. In the wake of the terrorist threats that America faces today, such practice exercises have only intensified. Perhaps, this is an occasion for clergy to get in the door of such events by making sure to get included in the practice sessions. At the same time, participation also sensitizes local police and rescue agencies to think of clergy involvement as a normal and indispensable aspect of crisis response. It might also be an opportunity for ecumenical cooperation in local clergy associations: we are interested in seeing that all people get spiritual care.

The Boston events should make us find out, rather than assume, just what kind of ministerial access clergy have at disasters. But it should also offer an opportunity to reviewing and renewing clergy relations with those services. In many instances, that personal relationship may make access issues just that much easier.

  1. Melanie Eversly, “’Angel’ Priest Visits Missouri Accident Scene,” <em>USA Today</em> (on-line edition), August 13, 2013, available at: www.usatoday.com…; “’Guardian Angel’ at Missouri Car Accident Identified,” from <em>Good Morning America</em>, available at: gma.yahoo.com… (both accessed August 25, 2013, 1100 GMT). The priest was Fr. Patrick Dowling.
  2. Jennifer Graham, “Faith at the Finish Line in Boston,” <em>Wall Street Journal</em> (on-line edition), April 25, 2013 (with a version in the April 26 U.S. print edition, p. A-17), available at: online.wsj.com….
  3. Ibid.
  4. For the background of the 1968 events and the Our Lady of the Highways statue, see cecilcounty.wordpress.com….
  5. “Barring Clergy at the Boston Bombing,” <em>On the Square—First Things</em>, April 30, 2013, available at: www.firstthings.com….
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avatar About John M. Grondelski

John M. Grondelski is an independent scholar from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Fordham, and served as associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He has written for Angelicum, Antonianum, Irish Theological Studies, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

Comments

  1. avatar keithp says:

    I’ve thought about getting one of those “I am Catholic Call a Priest” bracelets. My wife wears one.
    Candidly, I don’t think an EMT will pay any attention to something like that in this pagan day and age.

    My very strong recommendation is to live a Catholic life with frequent reception of the Eucharist and frequent confession. Remember “O Lord, keep us from a death unprovided for…”

    I also follow and wear the brown scapular devotion. And, a very lively trust in Mary’s intercession.

  2. avatar Kristen says:

    This is terrible. I had no idea clergy were not allowed in to minister to the wounded. They would have given so much consolation to the victims. Wow! Things have gotten so strange in this country. I have read that you should make each confession as though it would be your last. This article is a good reminder that also each Communion should be received as though it will be the last.

  3. avatar justin says:

    Read Dr. rao’s book light of the world….this sort of thing is the logical consequence of American pluralism and secularism. Religion is divisive and therefore must be kept strictly private…period. That’s what is slowly becoming the reality around here. Any religion that is allowed to seep out of church on Sunday or out of coffee table discussions to actually change lives and change culture is dangerous and divisive to the prevailing secularist pluralist zeitgeist. Don’t you know that in this culture no one who takes any idea or religion seriously is given any kind of public space?

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