VATICAN CITY (RNS) — On Sunday (June 21), Pope Francis praised “the difficult and sometimes heroic service” of medical personnel and priests during the COVID-19 pandemic but expressed sharp criticism for the behavior of those priests who defied safety measures.
“The pastoral zeal and creative concern of priests has helped people in their faith journeys and given them companionship in the presence of pain or fear,” he said, noting that most priests were “obedient and creative” in remaining close to their flock in the difficult months of the pandemic. “They were fathers, not adolescents,” Francis said.
This priestly creativity, he said, won out over what he called the “adolescent resistance” of some priests to the measures authorities put in place to protect people from the novel coronavirus.
At the height of the pandemic, some members of the clergy spoke out against the closure of churches. Among them, conservative Catholic Cardinal Raymond Burke issued an open letter stating that access to Mass and the sacraments must not be denied even as the world faces the coronavirus pandemic.
In the letter, published March 21, Burke noted that, just as people are able to continue going to pharmacies and supermarkets, the faithful “must be able to pray in our churches and chapels, receive the Sacraments, and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion, so that we know God’s closeness to us and remain close to Him, fittingly calling upon His help.”
Pope Francis’ Sunday remarks were made at the Vatican to an audience of the doctors, nurses and health workers from the northern Italian region of Lombardy, which was among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy in February, more than 150 doctors, 34 nurses, 18 health professionals and 13 pharmacists have died from the virus, according to data published by the Italian Medical Board.
Of the 150 doctors, 51 were from the Lombardy region, which also experienced the highest death toll in the Italian peninsula — 16,570 COVID-19-related deaths, according to official government data.
While official numbers are hard to come by, 121 Italian priests died because of the pandemic, according to the media outlet of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, “Avvenire.”
In his speech, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude for the tireless efforts of health workers in Italy and in the world. Their presence, not only at the side of the sick and dying but also their family members, was “a visible sign of a heart-warming humanity.”
Francis quoted examples of “tenderness” by medical personnel, from holding up the phone to the dying so they could say goodbye to their loved ones to prayers and caresses.
“Dear doctors and nurses, the world was able to see the good you have done in a time of great challenge,” he said. “Though tired, you continued to commit yourselves with professionalism and self-sacrifice.”
As more and more countries ease some of the safety measures imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic, the pope urged people to treasure the lessons learned from the months of lockdown and social distancing.
“Now it’s time to treasure all this positive energy we invested. Don’t forget!” he said. “The pandemic left a deep mark in the life of people and the history of communities.”
The many deaths, especially among the elderly, must be honored and not forgotten in order to build the future, Francis said, which “requires the commitment, strength and dedication of all.”
“This way, we will emerge from this crisis spiritually and morally stronger,” the pope continued, but only if everyone pitches in.
“God created us for communion, for fraternity, and now more than ever the pretense of betting only on one’s self has proven illusory. It’s illusory to make individualism the guiding principle of society,” Francis said.
He warned against the temptation to slip back into self-centeredness and forget how much we rely on other people for courage and sustenance. Even the Catholic Church, he said, like many other religious denominations, has had to adapt to new forms of religiosity and spirituality that rely on both new and ancient models.
“In these months, people couldn’t participate in person in liturgical celebrations, but they didn’t stop feeling like a community,” Francis said. “They prayed alone or with family, with social communications tools. They were spiritually united and aware that the embrace of the Lord extends beyond the limitations of space.”
The transformations inspired by the creativity and ingenuity of medical experts, religious and laypeople must inspire the next phase of humanity and faith, the pope said.
“May this miracle that you have started end well!”