The pope’s appeal to Italy’s priests in times of the Corona crisis was unmistakable: “May you have the courage to go out to the sick to bring them the power of the Word of God and the Eucharist,” he said at the beginning of the month. The words fell shortly after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared the whole country a huge disease-free zone. Thousands of people have died since then.

The Catholic Church is suffering heavy losses in the fight against the pandemic. More than 30 priests have already died in Italy as a result of the disease. Many of them have followed Francis’s appeal and want to assist the faithful in difficult times. Not only are older people among the victims; a pastor recently died in the diocese of Parma at the age of 55. He had probably contracted an infection from and older woman he was looking after.

The Lombard diocese of Bergamo have had the most deaths. Sixteen clergymen have already died in the northern Italian province; a total of more than 5,000 cases of infection are registered there. Military transporters have had to transport coffins in rows by truck because the local crematoriums are overcrowded. Clinics look like battlefields. The death bells hardly stand still.

In the midst of all this hardship, the Church tries – despite curfews and the risk of infection – to stay close to the people. One who gives a face to this commitment is the 84-year-old Father Aquilino Apassiti. He is a pastor in Bergamo’s John XXIII Hospital . In several telephone interviews he described the dramatic situation these days: “People die alone without anyone being able to come to say goodbye.”

He witnessed the Second World War; later when he was deployed in the Amazon region, he had to deal with leprosy and malaria. “But I have never seen such shocking scenes as now,” says the Capuchin. In the clinic he can only work with a protective mask. This has been a major limitation for him because he can “not even smile” at the patient. More than a few short words of comfort are usually not possible due to the strict protective regulations.

He is particularly hurt, says Father Apassiti, that the relatives have no way of mourning their dead face to face. He tries to contact the families with his  cellphone to say a prayer with them. He said to a widow on the phone: “I am standing here by your husband’s coffin, we are now praying to God, and the Lord will comfort you in her pain.” Then he and the woman burst into tears.

Cardinal Curia Angelo Comastri said recently that the Bergamo priests are an example of “true heroism.” Father Apassiti remains humble: he doesn’t feel like a hero. Rather, he admires the doctors and nurses. “It is terrible to see their faces with the furrows of the masks; they work eight hours in a row – almost without breathing.” He says he is not afraid of the virus anyway. “I’m 84 years old, why should I worry?”

Meanwhile, Bergamo’s Bishop Francesco Beschi said on Saturday that several more infected priests had to be treated in the hospital. For some, the situation is serious. Beschi spoke of a sign of “deep devotion.” Their goal was to share the pain of the sick. “I am convinced that the misery we experience opens our hearts to the light and power of the Holy Spirit,” the bishop said firmly. Fear is out of place. “The deceased pastors inspire us to be even more devoted to God and people.”

The above comes from a March 22 story on (Austria).