A few words on the quiet death of an Italian priest.
His name was Father Giuseppe Berardelli, and he served in Casnigo, a small village not far from Milan. He was 72 and died in a hospital of the novel coronavirus.
This was on March 15, though reports are just now filtering out. Again, it was a quiet death. As such, it was easily lost in the cacophony of our times. Particularly here.
How would we have heard about this death over the sound of one Brady Sluder, shirtless, hat to the back, maybe 20 years of age, telling a Reuters reporter on video that he wasn’t going to let a little pandemic keep him from enjoying spring break in South Florida. “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”
Nor would we have heard of the priest’s death over the howls of indignation after Sen. Rand Paul, who is also Dr. Rand Paul, golfed, worked out at the gym, met with reporters, lunched with his fellow Republicans and otherwise kept to his normal routine, all while waiting to learn if his test for the coronavirus would come back positive. Which it did.
And surely we would not have heard of this quiet death over the braying of Donald Trump, insisting against the judgment of medical professionals, that chloroquine, a drug used to combat malaria, could be a “game changer” in the fight against this coronavirus. An Arizona woman and her husband took him at his word, ingesting a fish tank additive containing the same active ingredient. She almost died. He did.
Against the blare and bleat of all that, it is no surprise this obscure death made little impression. But it’s worth noting just the same. You see, Father Berardelli died after he gave away his respirator. The life-saving device had been bought for him by his parishioners. But he insisted it go instead to a younger patient who was struggling to breathe, a person the priest did not know.
The obvious biblical maxim leaps to mind: John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
But if the priest’s death honors the precepts of Jesus, it also implicitly shames much of what we have seen here in response to this pandemic. Where he modeled selflessness, many of us have modeled its polar opposite. Not just putative leaders like Paul and Trump. Not just the Central Casting beach bro, Brady Sluder.
No, that also goes for people hawking Purell at $600 a bottle. And the ones in the warehouse stores brawling over toilet paper.
You always wonder who you’ll be in the moment of crisis, how you’ll acquit yourself when stuff gets real. Will you do the right thing? Even if it’s hard? Even if it demands sacrifice? Even if it means your poll numbers drop or, God forbid, you miss out on a party? Are you the soldier who throws himself on the grenade? Or are you the one who knocks down his buddies trying to get away?
There’s a temptation to give the easy answer, the one that flatters self-image. The truth is, this moment is testing us, and many are coming up short, all too ready to abandon the “we” and embrace the “me.” And yet, facing a crisis far greater than lack of Charmin, Father Berardelli made a different call.
You’ll find no grand, summarizing moral here. Instead, let’s close by simply noting that there was no funeral for the priest — they’re not doing funerals in Italy these days. But it is said that when his casket rolled through the village, people applauded from their windows and balconies. It was a quiet acknowledgment of a quiet death.
And of a hard test met with grace.
Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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