It was John B. Baus’s 82nd birthday. When he was getting ready to go out with his wife, he had a heart attack and ended up on his way to the emergency room instead.
Doctors there worked to stabilize him and performed surgery to implant a pace maker. Mary Adele Baus, his wife, went home after the surgery, assured that her husband was resting comfortably.
Instead, at 3 a.m. doctors were working frantically with oxygen and electric paddles to keep Baus alive.
In the midst of the effort Baus asked for a Roman Catholic priest, fearing death was only moments away.
“He said ‘I’m a dying man, and I want to see a priest,'” Mary Baus remembered. “All they said was that they didn’t have one.”
Baus survived, but his wife said it was a traumatic event that left both her and her husband shaken.
“There used to be a chaplain available if you needed him,” she said. “Or you could get a priest to come to the hospital. Now it’s not for sure that you will see anyone.”
Finding a priest to be at the bedside of the dying is becoming harder and harder across the country. The shortage of priests has been a problem for years, but its implications become most clear at dire times for the ill.
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond says that across the country there are fewer priests and fewer young men who want to become priests.
“We are challenged to find young men looking for vocations,” Aymond said. “We are getting fewer, and the process of preparing for the priesthood can take six to eight years. It makes it difficult to have people who can step in for retiring priests.”
Once called the Last Rites or Extreme Unction, the death bed ritual has changed for Catholics in recent years. The once-obligatory deathbed rite has been replaced with a new sacrament known as the anointing of the sick.
“It’s not like you used to see in movies with the priest anointing a dying man,” Aymond said. “Now we urge people to have it before they go into the hospital. It should be a community celebration, not something administered in isolation.”
That works if it’s a scheduled hospital visit, but for people like Baus, taken to the hospital during an emergency, there is no time to prepare beforehand.
Hospital chaplains are now scarce: of the 23 hospitals in the Greater New Orleans Area, only five with Roman Catholic chaplains. And even in those hospitals, personnel are frequently unaware of the chaplains and don’t call them.
“The number of priest chaplains has declined sharply,” said David A. Lichter, Executive Director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. “Ten years ago we had almost 900 priests that were members; now it’s down to 458. And many of them are elderly.”
There are more lay-chaplains in the 45-year-old organization now, Lichter said. But they cannot administer the sacraments, which means a dying person who wishes to have them must do it early, or hope someone can be found.
“I have been doing two, three a day,” said Rev. Steven Sauer, a Jesuit priest in New Orleans. “Even when there is a chaplain at a hospital, people don’t know it.”
Sauer points out that at his church there are two other priests, but one is in his 80s and the other is infirm.
“If I’m not available, there is no one else to go,” Sauer said.
At St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, a seven-hospital system in northwest Ohio, there is no problem having a priest available, said Rev. Joseph Cardone.
“We have a firm commitment to having priests on staff at every hospital,” Cardone said. “We want every person admitted to be seen by priest and celebrate sacrament of the sick.”
There are 624 Catholic hospitals and 60 Catholic health systems in the country. St. Vincent is one of the largest.
For other hospitals, getting a priest for an emergency remains tough.
“There was a time in a previous generation when you would call a church and get a priest,” said Rev. Pat Williams, the executive direct for priests in the New Orleans Archdiocese. “In those days there was usually two or three priests there. Not these days.”
For John and Mary Baus, that has caused a difference in the way they will approach the next hospital trip.
“After the last time I immediately called my parish priest,” she said. “I now have his number in my cell phone and he assures me he will answer anytime I call.”
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