ROSARIO, ARGENTINA – At the heart of the European coronavirus crisis in northern Italy’s city of Bergamo, six Catholic priests have died during the past week from the disease and, as of Sunday, over 20 priests were hospitalized.

The Bishop of Bergamo, Francesco Beschi, confirmed this numbers speaking with the Italian TV news network Rainews24.

“Our priests are many, and numerous are those who have exposed themselves [to the virus] to be close to their community,” he said Sunday. “Their illness is an evident sign of closeness, a painful sign of closeness and sharing in the suffering.”

Beschi also said that no one is “exempt” during this “extremely painful trial.”

Bergamo today is the Italian province with the highest number of people who’ve fallen ill, with 3,416 cases as of Sunday amid Italy’s overall total of 21,157. That represents 16 percent of the country’s total number of infections, even though with just over 120,000 inhabitants, Bergamo is only .2 percent of the country’s general population.

The number of deaths in Bergamo is also growing exponentially, with an estimated 50 people dying daily in this region due to the virus.

In terms of recent Catholic history, the broader northern Italian province of Bergamo is best known as the birthplace of St. John XXIII. Shortly after his election in 1958, Pope John XXIII told a group of pilgrims from his hometown, “Today, Bergamo has its pope.”

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, funerals are being held in cemeteries in Bergamo that can barely keep up the rhythm, and only under the condition that a very small number of mourners accompany the deceased and that they maintain a safe distance from one another. In addition, dozens of caskets are beginning to pile up in local churches with no room where to put them, according to reports on the ground.

Another priest, Luigi Trottner, reportedly was the second victim of the coronavirus in another northern Italian region called Trentino.

After the exponential growth of the pandemic, the Catholic Church in Italy decided to that Masses will no longer be celebrated publicly in an effort to protect the faithful from infection. The possibilities to join in the celebration remotely continue to grow with Masses being available online, through radio and TV networks.

Among the first to share his Mass through streaming was Pope Francis. Even though his daily Masses are often reserved for a handful of faithful, since past Monday they have been available on the Vatican’s website and YouTube channel. They are expected to be available throughout this week too, though this might extend until Easter.

In a confusing statement over the weekend, the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household announced on Saturday that there would be no faithful in the Holy Week celebrations, but on Sunday the Holy See’s press office said that measures were still being “studied.”

Since the pandemic began to affect the daily lives of Italians, social media has been filled with cases of priests and bishops moving through their dioceses, even with the necessary precautions, taking the blessed sacrament in procession or blessing people looking down from their windows.

Though supportive of the measures that help prevent the spread of the virus and hence save the lives of the faithful, particularly those most vulnerable, such as the elderly and people with chronic deceases, Pope Francis has given several signs in recent days of what he believes the role of priests and religious must be.

On Sunday, he began his Angelus message, delivered from the library in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said he wanted to thank the “creativity of priests,” who think of “thousands of ways of being close to the people, so that the people do not fell abandoned, priests with apostolic zeal who have understood this well in times of pandemic.”

On Friday Francis began his daily Mass in Santa Marta, the hotel within Vatican grounds where he’s lived since the beginning of his pontificate, saying that he understands the dilemma that priests in Italy find themselves in.

“I would also like to pray today for pastors who need to accompany the people of God during this crisis,” the pope said. “May the Lord grant them the strength and the ability to choose the best ways to help. Drastic measures are not always good.”

“Therefore, we pray that the Holy Spirit might grant pastoral discernment to pastors so that they might perceive measures that might not leave the holy, faithful people of God alone, and so that people of God might feel accompanied by their pastors,” Francis said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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