ROME – Father Gerardo Rodriguez Hernandez, chaplain for the Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infective Diseases, found himself in mid-March at ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak in Lazio, the Italian region surrounding Rome. Having accompanied more deaths than anyone probably should ever have to, he said he’ll carry that experience into praying the rosary with the pope today.
Speaking to Crux, Rodriguez said the past two months have “marked my life,” as he has had to accompany “such great suffering” in many patients and their families without being allowed to touch them, give them a hug or squeeze their hand to assure them that they are not alone.
“I was in touch with what I call ‘uselessness,’” he said. “To see people die completely alone…I can assure you that it was tortured. It makes me cry. This situation made me cry. It’s very difficult.”
Rodriguez, who ministered to the some 300 patients at a time who occupied beds in his hospital, which at was converted into a facility exclusively handling COVID-19 cases, is among those who will participate in a rosary with Pope Francis for the end of the coronavirus Saturday.
Each year at the end of the month of May, traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the pope closes the month praying a rosary in the Vatican gardens. This year, the rosary is organized by the Vatican’s Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and it will have as a special intention those who have died as a result of the coronavirus and their families, and for an end to the pandemic.
The rosary will be recited by people who have in some way been impacted by the coronavirus during Italy’s outbreak, including doctors, nurses, volunteers, survivors and family members who lost loved ones to the virus, as well as one family that had a new baby during the outbreak.
When the outbreak first hit Italy, Rodriguez said it “broke all the normal rhythms in every sense” in his hospital. Soon after the number of cases started rising, the facility became a COVID-19 hospital.
Since he could not enter rooms or touch patients, Rodriguez said he started walking the halls of the different wings of the hospital, at times stopping to speak to patients from behind the glass door that separated them from a small space with a sink, where Rodriguez would sit and listen to whatever they wanted to say.
“COVID has many facets,” Rodriguez said, noting that some patients were able to stand and walk around, while others were weak and could barely move. In these cases, he would simply sit and pray for the person as he looked on from the other side of the door.
When it came to distributing the sacraments, Rodriguez said that since public Masses were not allowed, he would hold a private Mass at 6:30a.m. for the four sisters who worked in the hospital, and would distribute communion to the patients who asked for it, leaving it on a piece of gauze just outside of their room, and reciting a short prayer with the person once they had consumed it.
“I didn’t stop even for a minute, because the work was not just with the patients,” he said, noting that his role as chaplain also means being there for the staff, from administrative personnel, to doctors and nurses, to cleaning staff and baristas who worked in the hospital café.
When Rodriguez gave last rites or needed to hear a confession, he would take several minutes to scrub and don protective gear. There were many times, he said, that people simply wanted to talk to a priest.
Rodriguez recalled how on one occasion, he was called in by a man who he said, “sensed that he was at the end of his life.” The man had told the staff that he was about to die and to call for a priest.
When Rodriguez got there, he sat down and talked to the man, who could barely speak, but moved his hand to signal he understood what was being said, and offered absolution. An hour later, the man died.
Rodriguez said the hardest part for him was watching young people die. “It breaks your heart,” he said, noting that while the vast majority of the lives claimed by the coronavirus were elderly, there were several young people who also lost their lives to the disease.
Pointing to one the most tragic examples he had seen, Rodriguez recalled the case of a 28-year-old woman who had just become a mother two months prior. After contracting the coronavirus, she passed away from complications, leaving behind her newborn child, husband and parents.
“I was alone with her father – a man my age who seeing his 28-year-old daughter die, was completely destroyed. I couldn’t even hug him or greet him the way I wanted to,” Rodriguez said, saying the only thing he could do was weep with the family.
“These cases with someone who is young, it’s a very painful situation. Even if you don’t know the person, you feel the pain of their family and you cry,” he said, adding that in his view, crying can be “a sign of love and affection, a gift from God” in difficult situations.
Despite being in the hospital and in contact with patients on a daily basis, Rodriguez said he was never afraid of contracting the virus, something he says “is a gift from God” that enabled him to be strong for the people he served.
As someone who has seen the impact of the coronavirus up close and prayed alongside patients and their families, Rodriguez said he’s not terribly moved by intra-Catholic debates over church closures and whether bishops should have pushed back harder against government-imposed restrictions.
Rodriguez said that whenever he hears someone complain that the supermarkets were open while Masses were forbidden, “I always responded the same: the supermarkets are open, great, but you know that the church is not a supermarket.”
“My church is not a supermarket, my church is a mother, and a mother takes care of her children, she wants to defend her children from pain and from suffering,” he said, insisting that the coronavirus could have been “far more terrifying that what we lived” had the government and the Church not acted when they did.
“Certainly, it’s not at all easy to make these decisions for an entire country,” he said, adding that for officials tasked with enforcing the country’s lockdown, “they don’t do it because they like it, they don’t do it because it’s fun, and even less so do they do it to be believed. Rather, it’s the opposite.”
“Our government here in Italy acted responsibly and, if you’ll excuse the word, in my view they acted in a paternal way toward the people. They took care of us so that the situation didn’t extend beyond what we were living,” he said, and praised the government and the Church for making what he said was “the right decision.”
Though he is unsure whether he will be able to meet Pope Francis or speak to him given current social distancing requirements, Rodriguez said that if he does get the opportunity, he would tell the pope “thank you for your paternity.”
“I think the pope acted in a very paternal way,” he said, recalling a March 27 prayer event held by Pope Francis in an empty, drizzly St. Peter’s Square.
“In that solitude, in that gesture that was so moving and so enthralling, there I saw the paternity of God in person in this man. So, the only thing I would have to say to the pope is thank you for your paternity, and continue to pray for us who are still on the front lines,” he said, insisting that while better, the crisis is not over yet.
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