ROME – Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease has claimed the lives of countless priests and religious throughout the world, but last week still set a milestone as three bishops succumbed to the illness in that seven-day stretch alone.
While the United States is currently leading the world in terms of infections, each of the bishops hailed from poor areas where either the virus is exploding or there’s a shortage of crucial medical equipment.
Those bishops are: Archbishop Moses Costa of Chittagong, Bangladesh; Bishop Eugenio Scarpellini of El Alto, Bolivia; and Bishop Henrique Soares da Costa of Palmares, Brazil.
Costa, 69, died Monday, July 13, while undergoing treatment for the coronavirus at Square Hospital in Dhaka. Bangladesh as of Monday had 207,453 coronavirus cases, with 2,668 deaths, including Costa.
He had been admitted June 13 with a cough and severe respiratory distress. His condition improved and on July 7 the medical board at the hospital was considering his release, but his health rapidly deteriorated and he was transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit July 9.
That is where he stayed until his death last week, which doctors say was the result of multiple strokes caused by a brain hemorrhage.
His funeral was held July 14, the day after his death. He is buried in a graveyard adjacent to the city’s cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.
Costa was appointed as the bishop of Chittagong in April 2011 and his installation ceremony took place a month later. Prior to his post in Chittagong, he served as bishop of Dinajpur for more than 15 years, from 1996-2011.
When Chittagong was elevated to an archdiocese in 2017, Costa was named its first archbishop by Pope Francis.
In a statement announcing his death, the archdiocese referred to their late archbishop as “a faithful servant of God who had “a confident, humble, farsighted and bold personality.”
“He worked tirelessly in the development of Chittagong and previously Dinajpur diocese,” the statement said, noting that Costa had helped to establish numerous health centers, educational institutions, charitable organizations and various other non-profits.
Calling his death “a great loss for Christian community as well as whole Bangladesh,” they asked that faithful join in praying for his eternal peace.
In Bolivia, which had 59,582 cases and just 2,151 deaths as of Monday, Scarpellini, 66, died Wednesday, July 15, at the Sacred Heart of Jesus hospital after suffering two cardiac arrests as a result of COVID-19.
An Italian from Bergamo, the hometown of Saint John XXIII, Scarpellini spent 32 years serving in Bolivia. He arrived in the country in January 1988, 10 years after his ordination as a priest in June 1978.
His first task in Bolivia was as pastor of the parish in Villa Copacabana, in the city of La Paz. He held this post until 1993, and in 1994, he was placed in charge of the ecclesial jurisdiction of the La Tejar area of La Paz, a role he carried out for 10 years.
After this, from 2000-2007 he served as director of the Marien Garten Catholic college, located on the western slope of La Paz, in addition to overseeing two rehabilitation centers, one for children and the other for adults.
In 2007 he was made coordinator of the Pontifical Missionary Works of America, a position he held until his appointment as auxiliary bishop of El Alto in 2010, and bishop in 2013.
During his tenure as bishop, he served as deputy secretary general of the Bolivian bishops’ conference from 2010-2012, and secretary general from 2012-2014.
In 2017, he issued a searing homily following a visit by then-president Evo Morales to the Vatican on the same day Bolivia passed a law widening access to abortion. In his homily, Scarpellini said that, “In our country, laws are passed that practically open indiscriminately the possibility of abortion. What irony! What hypocrisy that this occurs the same day that the President of Bolivia meets with Pope Francis.”
In his last sermon, delivered July 13, Scarpellini asked his faithful to “listen and meditate in the silence of the heart to the Lord’s words, to be faithful to him on the path of conversion, to be firm like him in adversities and thus to bear abundant fruit: to be missionary disciples of Jesus in today’s world and builders with the kingdom of the Father.”
After Scarpellini’s death, Giovani Edgar Arana, auxiliary bishop of El Alto, was named administrator of the diocese.
In a statement, Arana said the late bishop’s passing is a moment “of unity in pain, of brotherhood and faith in Christ victor over death, who told us, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will not die, but will live.’
In Brazil, Soares da Costa was among the latest casualties in a country that has come to dominate the world in terms of infections, second only to the United States. As of Monday, Brazil had a total of 2,098,389 confirmed coronavirus cases and 79,488 deaths.
Soares da Costa died Saturday, July 18, at 9p.m. after a lengthy battle with COVID-19. He had been admitted to the intensive care unit of the San Jose Memorial Hospital in Recife July 4, and that is where he took his last breath over the weekend.
He was named auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Aracaju in 2009, and in 2014 was named bishop of Palmares.
In the week leading up to his death, the diocese had organized online prayers everyday from 8a.m. until noon, which were broadcast to thousands of followers on social media.
In a statement following Soares da Costa’s death, Archbishop João José Costa of Aracaju called him “a man of unusual wisdom” whose life was marked by “a beautiful life of faith and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.”
“What Henrique lived internally had already overflowed and had repercussions on the outside of his mortal life,” they said, adding that in the absence of adequate words of gratitude for his service, “we express with our little, immense gratitude for everything he planted in this Diocese and may Our Lord give him the Grace to reap these fruits in Eternity.”
On the same day that Soares da Costa died, the Brazilian Diocese of Propriá issued a statement confirming that their bishop, Vítor Agnaldo de Menezes, has also tested positive for COVID-19.
According to the diocese, Agnaldo de Menezes is currently in stable condition, and is self-isolating in his residence.
Cardinals confirmed to have had the virus include Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, vicar of Rome and a confidant of Pope Francis, and Philippe Ouédraogo, Archbishop of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
While De Donatis and Ouédraogo have recovered and the situation appears to be easing in much of Europe, the deaths of Costa, Scarpellini, and Soares da Costa clearly indicate that coronavirus crisis is far from over.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen