By Vatican News
The highly industrialized and productive region of Lombardy in northern Italy is the hardest hit in terms of infections and fatalities due to Covid-19. The country’s first local case emerged on 21 February in the town of Codogno in Lombardy. Codogno and nine other towns in Lombardy and Veneto were closed off, and eventually the entire country locked down in early March. Since the epidemic started, more than 34,000 people have died of Covid-19 in Italy, one of the world’s worst death tolls.
On the front lines of the epidemic was an army of doctors, nurses, health care and civil protection workers. They risked – and many gave - their lives, working against the odds to tackle the emergency and care for the sick, who were put in isolation to curb the spread of the disease. Those who died were comforted by those caring for them, by priests and consecrated persons, as families and loved ones were in lockdown and unable to be present at the end of their lives.
These are the people Pope Francis has chosen to thank for their heroic work in one of the first audiences he has held in the Vatican since Italy and the Vatican were locked down early in March.
Addressing a delegation that included the President of the Lombardy Region, the Archbishop of Milan, the Bishops of a number of hard-hit dioceses, priests, consecrated persons and representatives of the medical and civil protection sectors, Pope Francis said his embrace goes to all those who have found themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, including researchers of Rome’s “Spallanzani” Hospital that has done much to combat the virus.
The Pope, who live-streamed Holy Mass every morning from the Casa Santa Marta, bringing comfort and closeness to millions of people across the world, said his thoughts also turn to various realities of Italian society, who during these troubled months have endeavoured to face the health emergency with generosity and commitment.
A visible sign of humanity
“More than ever we feel gratitude for the doctors, nurses and all health care workers, on the front line as they carried out an arduous and sometimes heroic service,” he said, describing them as “a visible sign of humanity that warms the heart.”
“Many of them fell ill and some unfortunately died in the exercise of their profession. We remember them in prayer with much gratitude,” the Pope said.
He spoke of how “in the whirlwind of an epidemic with shocking and unexpected effects, the reliable and generous presence of medical and paramedical staff was the sure point of reference, first of all for the sick, but in a very special way for their families, who in this case did not have the opportunity to visit their loved ones.”
These families “found in you”, the Pope said to the health care workers, “almost other family members, capable of combining professional competence with those attentions that are concrete expressions of love.”
Angels at the side of the sick
Patients, he said, often felt that they had “angels beside them, who helped them to recover their health and, at the same time, comforted, supported and sometimes accompanied them to the threshold of the final encounter with the Lord."
“These health workers, supported by the solicitude of the hospital chaplains, have witnessed to God's closeness to those who suffer; they have been silent craftsmen of the culture of closeness and tenderness,” he said.
And speaking off-the cuff, Pope Francis recalled their care and creativity in many big and small gestures, such as when they called family members with their personal cell phones so that the dying could say goodbye to their loves ones: “This has been good for all of us. This witness of closeness and tenderness.”
Pillars of the country
Pope Francis told the doctors and nurses present that the world has seen the work they have done in a situation of great trial: “Even if exhausted, you have continued to commit yourselves with professionalism and self-denial. And this generates hope. You have been one of the pillars of the whole country. To you here present, and to your colleagues throughout Italy, go my esteem and my sincere thanks, and I know well that I interpret the feelings of everyone.”
The Pope went on to say that now is the time to treasure all the positive energy that has been invested. He described it as “a wealth that in part, certainly, has been lost in the tragedy of the emergency, but said it can and must bear fruit for the present and future of Italian society."
Honour the suffering of the sick and dead in building tomorrow
Noting that the pandemic has deeply marked the lives of people and the history of communities, the Pope said that the suffering of the sick and the many dead must be honoured.
He highlighted how the life experiences of the elderly must not be forgotten and that in building “tomorrow,” the commitment, strength and dedication of all are required.
Start from love, community, fraternity
It is a question of starting afresh from the countless testimonies of generous and gratuitous love, Pope Francis said, “which have left an indelible mark on consciences and on the fabric of society, teaching how much there is a need for closeness, care and sacrifice to nourish fraternity and civil coexistence.”
Only in this way, he said, will we be able to emerge spiritually and morally stronger from this crisis. This, he said, “depends on the conscience and responsibility of each one of us – not alone, however, but together and with the grace of God.”
As believers, the Pope pointed out, it is up to us to testify that God does not abandon us, but gives meaning in Christ also to this reality and to our limits, and that with His help we can face the hardest trials.
He said that God created us for communion, for fraternity, and that now, “more than ever before, the pretension to focus everything on ourselves, to make individualism the guiding principle of society, has proved illusory.”
Beware of falling back into past mistakes
“Let us be careful,” the Pope warned, “because, as soon as the emergency has passed, it is easy to fall back into this illusion. It is easy to quickly forget that we need others, someone to take care of us, to give us courage.”
It is easy to forget, he said, “that we all need a Father who extends His hand to us. To pray to Him, to invoke Him, is not illusion; illusion is to think of doing without Him! Prayer is the soul of hope.”
Gratitude for priests
Pope Francis concluded his discourse recalling that during these months, people have not been able to participate in liturgical celebrations, but they have not stopped feeling community.
“They prayed individually or as a family, including through the media, spiritually united and feeling that the Lord's embrace went beyond the limits of space, he said, noting that “the pastoral zeal and creative solicitude of the priests helped people to continue on the path of faith and not to remain alone in the face of pain and fear.”
He expressed admiration for the apostolic spirit of “so many priests, who stood by their people in caring and daily sharing: they were a sign of God's consoling presence,” and he noted their creativity and maturity in dealing with the extreme situation of difficulty and suffering. Unfortunately, Pope Francis said, many have died, and he gave thanks to God for those who are healed and expressed his gratitude to all the Italian clergy who have shown courage and love to the people.