ROME — Before Nov. 19, Father Valerio Bortolotti’s Facebook posts had been the usual updates and reminders about parish activities, formation courses and video-recorded Masses outdoors with lax mask usage among the celebrants.
But when he ended up in a hospital that evening with pneumonia caused by COVID-19, he decided to keep his followers aware of his condition and of life “on the inside” in a crowded COVID-19 recovery ward in Rome where he serendipitously became the ward’s chaplain.
With bits of humor, sadness, hope, extreme fatigue and waves of delirium, the 57-year-old Valerio adopted the “nom de plume” Father “Viruslerio” and crafted a lengthy series of “news reports,” patient-personality profiles, musings, prayer requests and poetic odes in dialect dedicated to his new companion, coronavirus.
The entries, from Nov. 19 to Dec. 7, total more than 6,400 words and are abundantly illustrated with colorful emojis — such as red hearts, blue microbes and the Italian “sign of the horn” gestures equivalent to “knocking on wood” — since his sole writing device was his smartphone.
He shared on Facebook Jan. 14 a compilation of the series in a 40-page document, titled, “God, the Virus and I: The Semi-demented Chronicles of Contagion with Grace.”
The most poignant stories are about the patients and staff he gets to know, putting himself at the service of these men and women God has “put in this house that you have entrusted to me.”
“A virus brought me here to (the hospital), but my guide is Christ the King,” he wrote.
He describes: Imul, 33, a gas attendant from Bangladesh, who lay shivering from cold and fear. The priest tried to reassure him saying the intravenous fluids everyone was getting were the ones given to the rapidly recovered U.S. President Donald Trump; Mario, 88, a metalworker who lives near the Vatican, married 72 years and nicknamed “Meatloaf” for his big beefy build; and Aurelio, a nurse who had just started taking his vacation days and got sick.
Having packed a Mass kit in his bag for the hospital, Bortolotti celebrated Mass late in the evening when his IV drip was disconnected, the nurses’ rounds were over and the hallways were quiet. Even though they were in a non-critical care unit for COVID-19 patients, he still anointed the sick and offered last rites.
He described these quiet moments conferring the sacraments as seeing “grace passing concealed, in gestures of care, the care of (God) who loves his frightened child.”
Sometimes he also posted a photograph, for example of his makeshift “chapel” — a tiny alcove where supplies and a defibrillator were stored by a small room where an elderly woman named Lena lay. He celebrated Mass for her the night before she died, and he celebrated a funeral Mass the next day in his own room.
He celebrated another funeral Mass when Gianfranco died, holding the liturgy in front of the man’s empty bed. It was then that “I saw a crucifix, there on the wall, forgotten. I had just been thinking that day how I wanted one” and there it was, left behind by the deceased, the Rome-based priest wrote.
He took it down and hung it on his IV stand as a complementary “medicine from on-high.”
Speaking with the doctor in charge of the ward, he noted the great sadness belying her professional “detachment” when she said they can’t help but grow fond of their patients.
The priest thought of the many lives she must have seen slip away from her care. He wrote he prayed for her to have the strength to go on and to believe “these relationships have not been lost. In heaven, we will celebrate, without the masks.”