As Christmas nears, Catholic priest sees ‘signs of hope’ at COVID hospital in Rome

A Catholic chaplain at a COVID hospital in Rome said he has seen many reasons for hope this Advent, especially in the dedication of medical workers who give their all to save the lives of coronavirus patients.

Fr. Cesare Pluchinotto told CNA that he had seen “so, so many signs of hope: signs of hope in the health personnel, when they take care of the most fragile people, when they fight to the last moment to save a life.”

“I saw in these months a dedication which is not normally seen,” he said.

Pluchinotta is one of two priest chaplains at Spallanzani Hospital, home to Rome’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Early in the pandemic, it became the region’s first hospital dedicated to treating only coronavirus patients.

As of Dec. 15, the hospital was treating 225 patients with COVID-19, 37 of whom were in intensive care.

Pluchinotta said he had noticed that during the pandemic people have a greater sensitivity to others and the needs of their neighbors: “so many signs of human greatness, in the midst of hospitalization, illness, many acts of charity.”

“And this gives us hope. In a world where we are always turned more toward ourselves, toward our own pleasures, toward individualism, there are people who give all of themselves for a patient,” he said. 

He added that for him hope is an “operant virtue,” one lived in action, and that he saw it in the men and women working at the hospital.

Italy was hit with a second wave of the coronavirus this fall. Since March, the country has had more than 66,500 deaths from the coronavirus, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

There have been difficult moments, the chaplain said. The hardest thing for him has been the lack of physical contact with patients: “The lack of those means of communication that the Lord has given us, but which at this moment we cannot use, like looking each other in the eyes, or taking someone’s hand when they are in difficulty, or giving a hug of consolation, or simply sharing a smile.”

With faces covered by masks, face shields, and eye protection, the only means left of communication is the voice, he noted, “but the voice is not sufficient to communicate everything we want sometimes.” 

Pluchinotto said one thing that had made a big impression on him was the response of some patients when he entered their hospital room. Before he has the chance to say anything, the patient will ask him: “How are you?”

This shows humanity’s greatness, he said, because often the patient is having difficulty breathing and is in pain. Nevertheless, he or she has the consideration to ask him how he is.

“This little phrase, ‘how are you?’ touches me a lot,” he said.

“For me, it’s a sign of hope to see that not all is lost, that we have a humanity filled with the presence of God, even in faces and in moments we would not expect.”

But not all moments are like this, and many patients do not want to see a priest, he said, whether it’s because they are not Catholic or they are struggling so much to breathe that they don’t have the energy to speak.

“There are some people,” he added, “who feel the need to go to Confession or people who see that [their bodies] are not responding to the therapy, and say, OK, I want to reconcile with God as long as I’m alert, as long as I can.”

As a chaplain, Pluchinotta said that with the pandemic he has had to rely much more on the doctors and nurses to know when he is needed. Since he cannot enter patients’ rooms on his own, they tell him when someone wants the sacraments or needs his presence.

With the health emergency, and his hospital’s conversion into a COVID-only hospital, his contact with the sick has lessened, but his interaction with doctors and nurses has grown, he said.

“The doctors and nurses are also beginning to take an interest in pastoral work,” he commented. “And so this situation has brought us much closer to the doctors and nurses, who also have worries because they too need pastoral assistance in the hospital.”

During Advent, he and the other Catholic chaplain have offered a Mass for employees of the hospital. On Christmas Day, Pluchinotta said they will try to be close to the patients in whatever way possible, “whether bringing a holy card or a blessing.”

The chaplains are also putting together a nativity scene, which he said they hope will illustrate that by caring for COVID-19 patients, the hospital workers are also caring for Jesus. But don’t tell, he said with a laugh, “it’s a surprise!”

Pluchinotto, who is a trained psychologist, has also been offering weekly grief counseling via video call to people whose loved ones have died from the coronavirus.

The priest said he did this kind of counseling before the pandemic, but now it is being organized in cooperation with the hospital. People have really needed this assistance, especially at this time of year, he said.

Pluchinotto wanted people to know that, though this Christmas will be different, the Lord will still come to earth and is still present among us every day.

Offering a word of encouragement, he said: “He becomes man, despite this difficult year, and despite the coronavirus, the Lord becomes man all the same. He has not left us.”