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Italian clergy bearing heavy cross for offering solace amid anguish

Priests are playing crucial role for the ill, but many have died as result


Bravery: Fr Cirillo Longo in hospital before passing away

Bravery: Fr Cirillo Longo in hospital before passing away

Bravery: Fr Cirillo Longo in hospital before passing away

A rosary slung over his shoulder, a smile visible under the transparent respirator strapped to his face, Fr Cirillo Longo raised his fists over his head in celebration, as if he had just scored a goal.

"See you on the other side, in paradise," the 95-year-old said in his last phone call before he died in the Italian city of Bergamo last month, shortly after the picture was taken.

The photograph symbolises the high price being paid by clergy in Italy, where 120,000 people have been infected and more than 14,000 have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Priests have succumbed to the virus as they tend to the dying, trying to offer comfort in the absence of loved ones, who are not allowed to say a final farewell for fear of being infected.

"They die alone," said Aquilino Apassiti (84), a priest from Bergamo who spent 25 years as a missionary in the jungles of Brazil and now works in a chapel attached to the city's hospital. "In the Amazon, I dealt with leprosy and malaria, but I have never seen scenes as shocking as those of recent weeks," he said.

Families are left to grieve without the comfort of the funeral rites embedded in Catholic tradition for centuries. The pandemic in Italy has taken a terrible toll on medical staff, with more than 10,000 infected, and nearly 70 doctors losing their lives. But what has received less attention is the impact it has had on clergy, killing more than 90 priests, as well as dozens of missionaries, monks and nuns. Many worked in hospitals, prisons and care homes, and were particularly exposed.

"The deaths of doctors get our attention, but there are many priests who have fallen victim while working as well," said Alessandro Rondoni, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bologna.

Ethiopian bishop Angelo Moreschi (67) became the first Catholic bishop to die of the virus last week. Moreschi, who had spent decades as a missionary in Ethiopia, contracted the virus while in Italy for medical treatment. He died at a seminary in Brescia.

The diocese of Bergamo has lost 25 priests, the diocese of Milan 11, and the diocese of Piacenza-Bobbio six, including Don Paolo Camminati (53), from the city of Piacenza on the border of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy.

'Camo', as he was affectionately known around town, was especially popular among young people, church officials said. He taught in several schools and spearheaded community projects, including Alpine treks and social events that sometimes would end with him playing a guitar.

The virus has also raced through monasteries and convents. In the Saveriani care home for retired missionaries in Parma, the virus killed 12 men who had spent their careers battling the harsh conditions of Africa and South America. More than half of the 41 sisters in the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity in Turin caught the virus in March, and five have since died.

As Easter approaches, the centuries-old message of the Catholic Church is the same, but the methods are changing. Priests are recording and live-streaming Masses. One parish priest who conducted his service to an empty church filled the pews with prints of selfies of his parishioners to give the proceedings an element of humanity.

Fr Giuseppe Corbari, from Robbiano, north of Milan, said he had been saddened to see the church devoid of faces, and put out an appeal for people's photos.

"I was very moved by the response," he said. "These are terrible times, and we need to stay close to each other."

Despite the grim death toll among clergy and the enforced separation between priests and their flocks, there has been a resurgence in religious faith as people under lockdown reassess their lifestyles and priorities.

"This virus hit Italy hard," said Fr Gianluca Busi, a parish priest in Emilia-Romagna.

"But I think my church will be fuller after all this. Many of us are seeing a rebirth of spirituality as people reconsider the things that are most essential in their lives."