Grzegorz Draus is not an astronaut, although he may look like one, nor is he a pilot of some kind of special spaceship, but he is part of a very special mission. The protection and security measures are enormous, he has to wear a very specific type of protective equipment which includes no less than 14 different items. He is not the only one obliged to use this equipment; everybody participating in this mission has to do so. The aim: to care for the bodies and souls of COVID-19 patients in a special hospital in the city of Lviv in Ukraine.
In the corridors of the hospital there are many other people devoted to the same cause, dressed like him in facemask, protective goggles, overalls, gloves, and boiler suit.…, They include doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff – but as for Grzegorz, he is recognisable because he wears an additional item in his equipment that distinguishes him from the rest, namely his priestly stole.
Grzegorz Draus is Father Grzegorz in fact, a Polish Catholic priest from Lublin, who has for the past nine years been exercising his ministry in Lviv, one of the most important cultural and scientific centres of Ukraine. In the Lviv region there are over 3000 infected people and 700 of them in hospital, while almost 100 have died so far from the coronavirus epidemic. Here, ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, he has been visiting the COVID-19 patients in the hospital twice a week. “Unfortunately, owing to my other pastoral work, it is impossible for me to visit more often”, he explains sadly.
This long strip of cloth which the priest places around his neck is something so normal for many Catholics that sometimes it passes almost unnoticed, but at exceptional times such as these the priestly stole symbolises very powerfully the vocation of the priest – that of a pastor who, when necessary, is willing to carry his sheep on his shoulders, and a guide leading souls to eternal life.
The disease is everywhere
“I spend eight hours inside this “uniform”, which is made up of 13 different items. When I go from one hospital to another, I have to change part of the equipment and disinfect myself with a special type of liquid”, he explains, speaking in an interview to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International).
In the hospital where Father Grzegorz works, everybody working with COVID-19 patients has to submit to extreme security measures. “In other hospitals there are many cases of transmission of the virus, even among the doctors, because they don’t take so many security measures. But we cannot let down our guard, since the sickness is everywhere. On two occasions I had proof of this, and thanks be to God I am still well.”
“For me the most difficult part is having to work in spite of the humidity and perspiration, because everything mists up and it is almost impossible to see anything. I can’t imagine how the nurses can manage to work in such conditions; it is far from easy. But they have to do their work nevertheless, for example giving injections”, Father Grzegorz explains.
Every day a little miracle
He too does his work, which is by no means easy either. “I visit every room, I bless them and talk to them and try to bring good news. I speak of God’s love. I am not suffering from the disease… God knows, it would be pretty difficult for me. The patients have a strong faith. I told them that Jesus Christ is very close to them in their suffering, for He too suffered some of the same symptoms as those fighting this disease, since He too struggled to breathe…”
In addition to their physical sufferings, “the most difficult thing for the patients in the hospital is the consequences of the disease and the problems it brings to others – hospitalisation and isolation. Some of them can even feel guilty and blame themselves.”
In order to spiritually strengthen them, Father Grzegorz hears the confessions of those who request it and distributes Holy Communion to them. Because of sanitary regulations, he cannot consume any of the remaining consecrated hosts, or keep them or save them in any way. “But every day I experience a little miracle, for the number of people receiving Holy Communion is exactly equal to the number of hosts I bring with me”, he tells ACN.
The fascination of the priesthood
Father Grzegorz could never have imagined that his ministry would have brought him to this situation, but he was always quite clear that following God’s call to the priesthood would be an activity full of fascination. “God does not need your sacrifice, but your love”, a friend had once answered him when, as a young adolescent, Grzegorz had told him “that he wanted to sacrifice himself to serve the poor”.
In the almost 25 years he has spent since then, loving the poor and needy, this Polish priest has never “for a single day” regretted his ordination. The only thing he desires is to follow the example of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, “who slept for only four or five hours a day, because she was full of zeal for her work and loved what she did. I too want to love what I do in the same way, right to the end.”
In supporting the heroic service of the Ukrainian priests and religious during the pandemic, ACN International has provided the necessary protective equipment – including face masks, gloves, antiseptic, etc. – to 3478 priests, 92 seminarians and around a thousand members of the religious communities, for their own protection and in order to prevent the further spread of the disease.