ROME — Pope Francis offered special prayers for doctors, nurses, and priests who have died helping those affected by the COVID-19, calling them “heroes.”
In his live-streamed morning Mass celebrated in his Santa Marta residence in the Vatican Wednesday, the pope thanked the healthcare personnel and priests who are putting their lives at risk by attending to the physical and spiritual needs of those infected with the coronavirus.
To date, 24 doctors and 50 priests have died in their activity helping those affected by COVID-19 in Italy and almost 5,000 health workers have also been infected with the virus.
“I have heard that some doctors and priests have passed away in recent days,” the pope said. “They got infected, they became sick because they were at the service of the sick. We pray for them, for their families, and I thank God for the example of heroicity that they give us in caring for the sick.”
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has urged priests to be on the “front lines” to care for those who are sick and attend to their spiritual needs.
In a letter this month signed by the pope’s personal secretary but widely understood to have been written by the pontiff himself, priests are encouraged to act like “good shepherds,” ready to lay down their lives for the sheep, rather than frightened “hired hands” who abandon the sheep as soon as they see a wolf coming.
“In the epidemic of fear that all of us are living because of the pandemic of the coronavirus, we risk acting like hired hands and not like shepherds,” the pope wrote in the March 13 letter.
“It is good for the churches to remain open. Priests should be on the front lines,” the letter declares. “The faithful should find courage and comfort from seeing their shepherds. They should know that they can run in any moment and find refuge in their churches and parishes and find them open and welcoming.”
The pope also seems to suggest that while priests should cooperate with the decrees of civil authority, they have a higher authority that they are called to obey, which demands a willingness to sacrifice themselves.
“Think of all the souls who feel terrified and abandoned because we pastors follow the instructions of civil authorities — which is right in these circumstances to avoid contagion — while we risk putting aside divine instructions — which is a sin. We think as men think and not as God thinks,” he wrote. “We join the ranks of those who are terrified rather than joining the doctors, the nurses, the volunteers, the healthcare workers, and mothers and fathers, who are on the front lines.”
“I think of all the people who live by nourishing themselves from the Eucharist, because they believe in the real presence of Jesus who gives himself in holy Communion,” he continues. “I think of those people who now have to be satisfied following the Mass transmitted by streaming. I think of the souls that have need of spiritual comfort and of the sacrament of confession. I think of all those people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they had need of her.”
In his letter, the pope also urged priests to go out and meet people and to offer them the spiritual assistance that only they can give, “never shutting ourselves in, standing back as spectators.”
“Otherwise, we will find that people are ordering out to have their meals and their pizzas delivered, but do not have Holy Communion brought to them when they are old or sick or needy,” he writes. “It will happen that supermarkets, newspaper stands, and tobacconists are open, but not the churches.”