Bishop Sis Shares Story of Battling Coronavirus
(Editor’s Note: The following article by Bishop Michael Sis of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo first was published in the December issue of the diocesan newspaper, West Texas Angelus. It is republished here with permission. The article details the bishop’s personal battle with coronavirus.
By Most Rev. Michael J. Sis
Bishop, Catholic Diocese of San Angelo
The coronavirus had been spreading in our area for eight months. I was grateful to God for the gift of health, allowing me to continue serving our people in a time of serious pandemic and social turmoil. Here in San Angelo, we had long been planning a race relations forum, involving community leaders, government officials, university spokespersons, and pastors of various churches. I had great hopes for its potential in confronting racism. Nevertheless, as the number of cases spiked, I decided to postpone the event.
The morning after the event would have taken place, I began to feel feverish at my office. I packed up my laptop and headed directly to the drive-through rapid test facility. A few hours later, they contacted me with the good news of a negative result, saying I could now return to work. However, I did not trust the result, because there was still no explanation for my persistent fever. I kept a self-quarantine just to be on the safe side. I looked for a PCR test and managed to find one at a local pharmacy. Two days later, the pharmacy sent me the fateful email. Before I opened it, I prayed, “Lord, may your holy will be done. Give me the grace to face whatever the result is.” The note from the pharmacy included the word written in red — positive.
My struggle against the coronavirus raged on for days. I don’t recall ever in my life having a fever that lasted so long. I had a strong desire to avoid hospitalization if at all possible, since hospital resources here in West Texas are stretched so thin. I took vitamins and medications like they were going out of style. I made several new fascinating discoveries — like the fact that the unflavored Pedialyte tastes a whole lot better than the flavored kind. I slept more than ever before, because the fever was just wearing my body out.
Going through day after day of illness put me in touch with my own human weakness and vulnerability. It helped me to identify more closely with the vulnerability of others around the world, including those who are sick, elderly, homeless, in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, refugee camps, and in hospice care. In my illness I felt more deeply connected with the human family everywhere. I embraced a sense of solidarity with those who are in pain, those who care for the sick, those grieving loss, and those who feel fear and anxiety.
It is hard to be productive when you are in quarantine, especially if you are battling illness. There are several projects I was working on that have been delayed. This is frustrating, because I like to get things done. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that the core of our value as human beings is not in our productivity, but rather in the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Our “being” is ultimately more important than our “doing.”
I was sustained by the prayers of many of you, and I am very thankful for that. I also found much consolation in the prayer of the Rosary and meditation on the Psalms from the Daily Office. Since I have a chapel in my house, I celebrated the Mass every day, which was the greatest source of grace. In the Eucharist, I was able to pray in union with all of you and with the entire Mystical Body of Christ.
In the depths of my illness, with coughing, fever, and a tightness in my chest, and worried about possible lung complications, I felt very close to Jesus. I recalled what I had read years ago in various scholarly studies that, as Jesus hung on the Cross, one of the many things that he suffered was difficulty in breathing and a lack of sufficient oxygen. Jesus felt the pain and struggle of not being able to get enough air. Therefore, our COVID-19 breathing difficulties can connect us to Jesus. So, in my prayer, I asked Jesus to join my illness to his experience on the Cross, so I could share in some small way in his redemptive suffering for the good of humanity.
In the midst of my coronavirus experience, on a day when I was not feeling well at all, I was on a teleconference with a few old friends. One of them made a statement that struck me as a profoundly Christian insight. She said, “Make sure to pray for us while you’re sick, because the prayers of those who are suffering are especially powerful.” She inspired me to offer extra prayers of intercession during my illness for the needs of people everywhere.
Another source of Christian wisdom that helped me with my own case of COVID-19 comes from the preaching of Pope Francis in his Extraordinary Moment of Prayer in an empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27, 2020. He said that, as the human race struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, we must remember the experience of his disciples when Jesus calmed the violent storm on the Sea of Galilee in Mark 4:35-41. The waves were breaking over the boat, and it was taking on water. Jesus was fast asleep in the stern, trusting in the Father. His disciples woke him in their fear and anxiety, crying out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus immediately calmed the storm and reminded them to have faith.
When Pope Francis reflected on this Gospel passage, he pointed out several things that help us in our struggle with the coronavirus: We are in the same boat together, and Jesus is right here in the boat with us. He does care about us. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We need to trust in him. God turns to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. We are to embrace hardships as our way of embracing the Cross of Jesus.
My case of COVID has led me to place more trust in God. It has been an exercise in faith. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Heb 11:1). We cannot see God, but he is here with us. He will never abandon us. He might not spare us from catching the virus, but he gives us the grace to face it more serenely.
The challenges of this disease also remind me of our Christian belief in eternal life. As human beings we are saddened by the reality of death, but as Christians we are consoled by the promise of immortality. Our only true home is in heaven. Ultimately, we are citizens of heaven, and our hearts are restless until they rest there with God. God has created us with an inborn orientation toward our home in heaven, and we will never be completely fulfilled until we get there, and see God face to face. In heaven, there will be no more tears, no more illness, no more pain, no more loneliness, no more pain of separation, and no more death.
Knowing that some of my co-workers in the diocesan offices also tested positive for COVID-19 around the same time that I did, I am sorry if I may have unknowingly spread the virus to them before I was symptomatic, and for any negative impact this has had on their families. I pray for healing of all those impacted by this pandemic. As I look back, I am very relieved that we did not hold the race relations forum in San Angelo on that day when I unknowingly had the virus. Otherwise, it could have become a real super-spreader event.
I am deeply grateful to those who have helped me in my battle with the coronavirus. These include the ones who reached out, those who dropped things off on my front porch, those priests who covered the Masses I had been scheduled to celebrate, those people who called and emailed, and the many who offered prayers to God on my behalf. Those prayers have made a tremendous positive difference. I am also thankful for all those who work in medical facilities and pharmacies. They face the danger of infection every day, yet they courageously fight on, helping others to heal. I am forever grateful to you all.
We are in this boat together. We must row together and place our trust in God.