By Tom Dermody Catholic News Service
PEORIA, Ill. — Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria took to the skies via a helicopter on Good Friday, April 10, to offer a blessing to the entire Diocese of Peoria as well as to pray for all affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was happy to do something that may give some comfort to people, especially those folks who, on this Good Friday, are scared about their relatives in the hospital,” said Bishop Jenky moments after landing near the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport.
“This kind of illness brings an enormous fear for our people and our country,” continued the bishop, who donned a mask before climbing into a medical transport helicopter at about 1 p.m. for a 12-minute flight to downtown Peoria and back. “And prayer, no matter who’s saying it, can move mountains. I really felt blessed to be praying with and for the diocese today, and for everyone else in Illinois, our country and the world.”
The aerial blessing was first proposed midweek by Tomas Wojtowicz, a pilot for OSF Aviation — a branch of OSF HealthCare, a system based in Peoria that is owned and operated by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. When OSF leaders approached the Diocese of Peoria with a suggestion that a priest take a flight to pray for protection against COVID-19, they received a quick response that Bishop Jenky would like to do it.
“OSF is one of our greatest Catholic institutions,” said Bishop Jenky of the system that includes 14 hospitals and employs more than 23,000. “Anything the Sisters ask me, I try to do.”
Bishop Jenky was joined in the OSF Life Flight helicopter by Msgr. Philip Halfacre, vicar general of the Peoria Diocese, as well as the pilot and a flight nurse.
Though favorable weather factored into the decision to fly on Good Friday, Bishop Jenky said the day was appropriate.
“This is one of the holiest days of the year, at a time when we’re living something like we’ve never lived through,” he told The Catholic Post, Peoria’s diocesan newspaper.
During the flight to downtown Peoria and back, Bishop Jenky offered a prayer composed by the Vatican for a “Mass in Time of Pandemic.” The prayer reads, in part, as follows:
“Almighty and eternal God, our refuge in every danger, to whom we turn in our distress; in faith we pray look with compassion on the afflicted, grant eternal rest to the dead, comfort to mourners, healing to the sick, peace to the dying, strength to health care workers, wisdom to our leaders and the courage to reach out to all in love, so that together we may give glory to your holy name.”
Once the helicopter reached downtown Peoria — above OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center and nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral — the pilot turned to the north, east, south and west. The bishop then offered a blessing out the helicopter window in each direction.
“We blessed, at this holy time of the year, all the faithful and in a particular way those suffering from the pandemic and those who care for them,” said Msgr. Halfacre, who was taking his first helicopter ride. He and Bishop Jenky expressed gratitude to OSF HealthCare leadership for not only making the flight possible, but more especially for the care they are providing and the advice they are giving the Diocese of Peoria.
“They’ve been partners with us all along in how to respond to the present moment,” said Msgr. Halfacre.
“We are not experts on contagious disease,” said Bishop Jenky. “It is a huge comfort to have prudent advice from medical experts and, in our circumstance, from a Catholic hospital system that I completely trust.”
Steve Mattern, vice president of mission services for OSF HealthCare, said the system’s staff is “doing great work” during this uncertain time when there are still “a lot of unknowns.” The OSF facility coping with the most COVID-19 cases is the newly acquired OSF HealthCare Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Chicago. Mattern said April 10 that hospital has 160 COVID-19 patients, but also has treated and sent home 186 patients.
Whether or not the virus will spread to a greater degree in central Illinois is uncertain. But on Good Friday, the region was covered by prayer from the air.
Bishop Jenky said that, despite a stiff wind, the flight was “very easy and very safe. The pilots and the nurse and everyone were very kind.”