The sound of explosions shattered the serenity in St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine on April 15, 2013. The priests in residence at this Catholic shrine, located three blocks from the finish line of the Boston marathon, wasted no time in racing to the scene armed with the sacramental oils necessary for the administration of last rites. Upon their arrival they found that, while doctors and nurses were admitted without question, first responders of the spiritual variety were not welcome. The priests were turned away from the scene, leaving them unable to minister to the afflicted in the manner that only priests can: through the sacraments.
What the priests were permitted to do was return to their Church from which they could provide water and fruit to those in physical need. Can we all agree that this is a task that could be performed by anyone? While the Church is certainly focused on ministering to the corporeal needs of humanity it was decided by the apostles themselves that the role of priests was something more. St. Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles:
“At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, 'It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.'”
From the very beginning the Church made clear that the paramount duty of priests is the administration of the sacraments. Since they alone, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the authority to administer the sacraments this must be their primary focus. In order to ensure that this was the case the apostles had the wisdom to delegate the second duty of the Church, caring for the physical needs of humanity, to the deacons. Throughout the centuries many religious orders have also appeared in order to address specific needs and the laity have recently taken on a larger role in ministering to humanity in the name of the Church. These are the ones who should have been providing food, water, and kind words on April 15.
The priests, on the other hand, should have been at the sides of the dying, ushering them into the Kingdom of Heaven through the sacrament of last rites. As Fr. David Engo said in the movie Fishers of Men, “It is the priest who brings the soul home to God.” On April 15, the Boston police force took it upon itself to deny to the dying the graces of the final sacrament. The most poignant tragedy to result from this decision came in the death of 8-year-old Martin Richard, as reported by Jennifer Graham in The Wall Street Journal. This boy “was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year. As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites.”