(Msgr. John Enzler serves as the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, and this is his “Faith in Action” column for the Catholic Standard and Spanish-language El Pregonero newspapers and websites of the archdiocese.)
I am one of the lucky ones blessed to have received the COVID-19 vaccine, and I did not fully appreciate the sense of relief and freedom that would come with it. There is much to be done and precautions still to be taken, but I feel hopeful the end is in sight and that I can start being the kind of priest I love to be.
I received the Pfizer vaccine about a month ago. Because of my age and health circumstances, I fit into a category that allowed me to be vaccinated earlier than most. I hope and pray that others get the same opportunity as quickly as possible to develop some immunity to the serious virus that has impacted the entire world.
We have dealt with the struggles of COVID-19 for about a year now with little good news along the way. We watched cases rise from a few last March into the thousands in the spring, the tens of thousands in the summer, and even the hundreds of thousands by winter. It is staggering that half a million people in the United States have died from the virus, and nearly 30 million have had it. Reports tell us the number is likely much larger, perhaps close to 100 million, when you add in those who experienced no symptoms and never knew they had it.
Vaccines provide great hope. Kudos to those in our scientific community who found a way to develop a vaccine so quickly. It is somewhat of a modern miracle that such highly effective vaccines were approved in less than a year. The previous record was four years for the mumps vaccine in the 1960s. Can you imagine waiting another three years?
I know I cannot let my guard down for myself and those around me. I still wear a mask. I social distance. I continue to wash my hands and follow other recommended protocols to help stop the spread. I am always a little bit shocked by those who do not follow the protocols, and I worry not only for them but those they might unknowingly impact and infect.
I also worry about those who do not want the vaccine. Some in our country seem to mistrust science and these vaccines. More than one person has told me they will not get it. I respect their wishes, and, at the same time, this seems like the best way we as a family and a country can band together to make sure the virus is stopped.
I am thrilled to report that our clients in our D.C. low-barrier shelters (which number about 1,400 in normal times) and our staff members who serve them were all given the opportunity to receive the vaccine through Unity Health. That is a great blessing, and I think it will help us avoid further tragedies and difficulties in our shelters, where so many are forced to gather in close proximity because of the circumstances of their lives.
Similarly, I worry about those in prisons, nursing homes and places of care. And I worry about our clients whom we serve every day. All of these individuals need and deserve the vaccine as much or more than I do, and we must find a way to be sure they get it as soon as possible.
For those who choose not to receive it, I respect their decision. I would just encourage them to think about what is best for them, yes, but also for the good of our community. As I said earlier, the vaccine may give you a level of freedom and appreciation that you might not expect until you finally have it. It is a feeling of doing everything you possibly can to overcome COVID-19. I feel I am helping myself, my family, my parish community, my colleagues at Catholic Charities, and anyone else I come in contact with. I feel part of a larger family trying its best to move forward and get back to at least some version of normal that allows us to be together once again.
One of the things I have missed so badly is interacting directly with people who are part of my spiritual family. I look forward to helping distribute meals at food lines, visiting shelters and simply talking one-to-one with someone on the street. I have missed the opportunities to minister to those who are homeless, poor and left behind by the ravages of life. With the vaccine, I feel I can be pastor to the poor once again. I feel protected by God and medicine.
I didn’t fully realize how much I am lifted up, energized, and inspired by those who are poor and vulnerable. Just being with them allows me to both see Jesus more clearly and to bring Jesus to those who come our way. It is wonderful to be able to do that once again, at least to some degree, and I hope to do more and more as the months go by.
I will continue to be very careful, as we all should. I will also continue to look for ways to bring comfort to all who need and deserve the helping hand of a Church and our charities that are here for them.
I thank God for the wonder of modern medicine. I long for the day when we can all be together again without fear or restrictions, and I pray the vaccine will allow this to happen sooner than later.