ROSARIO, Argentina – Like anyone trying to capture imaginations and to stir hearts and minds, popes often traffic in soundbites that express a whole vision in a carefully chosen phrase. For Francis, one such signature expression is the Catholic Church as a “field hospital.”

Anyone tempted to think that’s just empty rhetoric probably ought to meet Sister Simona De Pace, a Dominican Sister of Saint Catherine of Siena who’s been a religious for 23 years.

Sister Simona De Pace. (Credit: Facebook capture.)

She’s part of vast mobilization of religious women in the fight against the coronavirus, and although there are no hard numbers yet as to how many Catholic nuns worldwide have lost their lives to the disease, given their front-line roles in health care, education, charitable work and social services, there’s little doubt the toll will be considerable.

De Pace illustrates those risks. A nurse who graduated from Turin’s Catholic University, she worked for five years in a surgical clinic before becoming a missionary in several countries, including Nigeria, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, all places where she doubled as a nun and a nurse, often in regions with no hospitals or doctors.

Back in Italy during the coronavirus pandemic, De Pace still is pulling double duty, tending to hundreds of people often on the margins of Italy’s health system at Milan’s Opera San Francesco per i Poveri (“Work of St. Francis for the Poor”). Despite the applause medical personnel are receiving for their sacrifices, she’s remained grounded.

“We shouldn’t feel like the ‘heroes of the moment,’” she said. “We’re doing what’s appropriate!”

De Pace believes the lessons of the pandemic for health care workers aren’t just clinical or epidemiological.

“We should think of new ways to continue caring for our patients who, in addition to health issues, experience very precarious social situations,” she said.

She’s been in Milan, in Italy’s Lombardy region, since 2013, where she works with more than 200 volunteer doctors who, in shifts, help an average of 200 people who arrive daily at the clinic. Most are migrants, hailing from 140 different countries. Everything the clinic offers, from check-ups to blood tests and various therapies, is free.

“We want to take care, above all, of all the marginalized and most vulnerable people,” De Pace told Crux via WhatsApp. “With the start of the epidemic, we had to organized our work preparing two separate areas: one to tend to the patients who already have respiratory symptoms and fever, and another to attend to the asymptomatic.”

“In case of serious respiratory problems, an ambulance is called to transport the patient to the hospital,” she said. “Considering that the indication is to stay at home, we have activated a home nursing service. Another nurse and I go to our chronic patients’ house to make sure they are well and to bring their medications.”

Opera San Francesco per i Poveri has kept its services open,” De Pace said. “We have accepted the great challenge of remaining open so we could continue to be a point of reference for many people, and the challenges we face are many and different depending on the service. In addition to the clinic we have two dining rooms and showers for homeless people.”

“I think that during this pandemic, the challenge for me as nurse is to decide to continue working while being aware that there’s a risk of getting sick,” she said. “At the same time, I know that risk is part of nurses’ DNA. Today, we are working under all the safety protocols, but we always choose to stay at the front line, next to the sick.”

De Pace acknowledged that a fear she harbors during these days is the possibility of being infected but asymptomatic, thereby becoming a vector, meaning a channel to pass the virus to other sisters who live with her. This has led her to self-isolate as much as possible, to protect those in her home.

“I believe that this pandemic offers us the opportunity to really understand what it means to cooperate at all levels- government, society and globally,” she said, noting that the call to stay at home is not an invitation nor an overreaction from authorities, but an “obligation” because it’s the only way to stop the spread of the virus.

“Everyone, from the youngest to the elderly, without any cultural or social difference, is called to cooperate and be jointly responsible for a common good that is health,” De Pace said.

Milan was the first city in Italy to close, dubbed at the time the “Wuhan of Europe,” and both its infection rate and death toll has been the country’s worst. However, De Pace insisted that in light of the risks, it isn’t just hard-hit areas such as Milan called to make sacrifices, but all countries need to adopt measures to combat transmission of the disease.

“A virus, an invisible being has paralyzed the entire world making us all vulnerable,” she said, and “only if we all adopt the same behaviors, can we stop the spread.”

De Pace also told Crux that she’s thankful for the fact that, since the pandemic began, she’s been able to take care of patients, but they too have been checking in on the doctors and nurses, to make sure that “we are doing ok and thanking us for being present for them.”

“This makes us understand the beauty of weaving human relationships with patients,” she said.

Despite the grim situation in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, De Pace believes that “the challenge in the pandemic is to be creative! To always be at the service of the most fragile.”

Looking forward, she has high hopes for the post-coronavirus world: “In these weeks some wars have stopped, the level of contamination on the planet has decreased, we are all equal … if this is possible due to a virus, in the future, could it be possible for us to make this option freely?”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma