VATICAN CITY — Italian Capuchin Father Aquilino Apassiti lived through air raid bombings as a boy during World War II, worked as a nurse for 18 years, spent 25 years as a missionary in the Amazon facing regular outbreaks of malaria and leprosy, and survived pancreatic cancer.
But nothing was more shocking than seeing the lines of ambulances outside the hospital he worked at and the rows of coffins he blessed piling up in the morgue in early 2020 in Bergamo — the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy, registering the highest number of known cases and deaths related to the coronavirus.
“I never saw anything like this in my life, not even in the leper colonies where I worked in Brazil,” he told Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.
“But I never lost hope. People came from all over the world to help out,” he said in an interview published Feb. 11, World Day of the Sick and the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The 85-year-old Capuchin is still serving as a chaplain at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, which had allowed its four chaplains to continue their ministry, but with stricter precautions and limitations.
Covered head to toe in protective gear and holding a rosary between latex-gloved fingers, he would make sure patients could see him through the glass outside their rooms so they wouldn’t worry he had gotten sick, too, he told Avvenire back in March 2020.
That was when several media outlets had reached out to him to ask how he had become a critical point of contact between the deceased and quarantined family members.
Under headlines such as, “The fearless father” and “A priest among the coffins,” he told outlets about the day when he saw a phone number listed on one of the endless, unlabeled coffins accumulating in the hospital morgue. He called to find out it was the now-deceased man’s wife, who had brought him to the hospital just three days before.
“I took my smartphone and called her, ‘Ma’am, be strong. I am here next to your husband’s casket. I’ve got a mask on. Let’s pray together.’ And other nurses stopped to pray, too,” he told the Bergamo edition of Il Tempo in April 2020.
Knowing relatives could not say goodbye to their loved ones just “added more grief on top of grief,” he said.
Today, he told Avvenire, things are different, but there is still a sense of anxiety that it is not completely over. “There is a room next to the emergency room for oxygen tanks. And I can figure out the threat level when I see how many of them are empty or full,” he said.
“People ask if I was ever afraid and I tell them ‘No,’ because if I had been, it would have been better to just pack up and leave. I am not trying to be a hero, just do my duty.”