My name is Fr. Santo Merlini, I belong to the Fraternity of Saint Charles and since 2013 I’ve been the chaplain of Sant’Orsola Hospital. The situation of the pandemic has called me to a new step and a new beginning, in the span of a few days the hospital has assumed a new face and I wasn’t able to do my work in the same way I could before, in front of many people sick and alone, in front of so many that die without their loved ones. Different wards of the hospital had to equip themselves in order to confront a situation for which they weren’t prepared, so that the surgical, ENT, emergency, and other departments transformed into COVID wards, having to rethink the entire department. Then in the span of a few days they put in place exceptional intensive therapy to respond to the growing need.
Little by little, even without knowing these departments being that I worked prevalently for the pediatric and OB wards, I searched for ways to enter in, pushed by our Bishop whom I thank for sustaining and encouraging me. I speak with him almost every evening and he is very concerned for the many patients who are alone, he pushes me to not stop in front of the difficulties that I encounter.
I began to visit the COVID intensive therapy patients and I was immediately struck by the doctors’ and nurses’ desire to take a short break to say a prayer. At my invitation to pray the personnel stopped, making the sign of the cross to pray with me. Finding almost all of the patients in a sedated state I blessed them and I pronounced the formula for extreme absolution. Then little by little I am getting to know some of the head nurses in order to organize my time and activity in the department. I began to enter into some COVID wards, only some, but it’s an important start while sometimes I receive calls from other wards from people who desire to receive the comfort of the sacraments.
Entering into the COVID ward is very tiring, you need to undergo to many laborious procedures of dressing and undressing, often even more than once in the same ward to go from one room to another. When you have all of those clothes on you sweat a lot and the two masks that you have to wear make it difficult to breath. It’s a struggle that I share with the doctors, nurses and social workers that have to wear those clothes for many more hours than I do. But I was struck by the desire for God that I found in the people that I visited. Almost all of them desired to say a prayer with me, the many elderly but also the younger patients, that are much more that we would expect. It’s not true that the virus only affects the elderly.
Sometimes we think that there’s no more faith, that no one desires to pray anymore. I hear it said often even by people of the Church. In these past few weeks I’ve seen that there’s a great desire for God, a desire that emerges strongly in the fragile condition of an illness that forces you to be alone for many days and surrounded only by suits and masks that make those around you unrecognizable. I was struck by the witness of one patient’s suffering – an over-eighty-year-old that lost her husband, him as well for the coronavirus, with which she had been together since they were 16. They spent an entire life together but at the moment of their separation they found themselves alone, in two different wards. While the other day a sick woman continued to ask me “God didn’t forget me, right?” I was there to tell her and the other patients that God hadn’t forgotten them, that in fact through their suffering they are closer to Him.
To make myself recognizable I draw with a marker or tape a cross on my scrubs and in this way people recognize me as a priest. Some patients, upon seeing me, have said “Finally!” I administer the collective absolution to the eldest or most critical patients, inviting them to confess themselves as soon as possible.
This work is asking me to sacrifice from a personal standpoint as well, the first of which consists in having gone to live by myself, depriving me of the companionship of my brothers Fr. Peppino and Fr. Marco. The fact that I’m doing this work for obedience, not for a desire to be heroic, comforts me. It wasn’t my idea to enter into the hospitals, and a year ago I would’ve never thought to find myself in a real and true battlefield, in which I have to defend myself from the attack of the mortal enemy: the virus. I feel myself one who simply responds to his obligation. I find, however, a great support in the presence of some doctor and nurse friends, with whom I share different moments of my day and especially a moment of prayer together every day. We are careful to respect the distances as the rules say: a distance, though, that is eliminated by the decisiveness of our prayer. Their presence reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not the only one risking my skin to bring a little bit of comfort to the sick. There are the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, but also all of the cleaning and maintenance staff that heroically risk getting sick in order to put their lives in service of the sick.