As Easter nears, virus deaths test Italian priest's faith
CARENNO, Italy (AP) — The circle of contagion around the Rev. Angelo Riva couldn’t have been tighter. Within two weeks of sitting with his parents and a fellow priest at lunch, the 53-year-old Catholic priest was grieving the deaths of both his father and the colleague who assisted him at three mountain parishes above Lake Como in northern Italy. As Easter approached, Riva prepared for his mother to die, too.
‘’All of this has put in my life in crisis. It is truly an inner revolution,’’ said Riva. ‘’It has created a crisis with respect to my life, with respect to myself, with respect to my faith.'' No one can say for sure how or when the virus arrived in Carenno, a mountain village northeast of Milan with a population of 1,500 and the largest of Riva's three parishes, or where in the priest's inner circle it struck first.
Was it when his 81-year-old father suffered respiratory distress while hospitalized in nearby Bergamo over Christmas, two months before the virus was confirmed in the province? Was it from Riva’s own illness — nausea with fever — weeks earlier?
Or was it through the 71-year-old diocesan priest who served as his assistant, Don Adriano Locatelli, the first of the three to test positive after the idyllic lunch? “The situation exploded when Don Adriano was hospitalized Sunday, March 8,” Riva recalled. “Then Dad was hospitalized Tuesday and died Friday, and the next Sunday, the 15th, Mom’s condition worsened.”
In retrospect, he realized they all had concealed symptoms. Don Adriano’s morale sank as news of the virus clusters in northern Italy broke and grew bleaker. Only later did it occur to Riva that the priest probably already had a fever.
Riva said his father sounded upbeat during their last phone call, but he now suspects he was already sick. Their conversation took place such a short time before an ambulance took his father to the hospital.
‘’He was hiding his ailments from Mom, so neither she nor we children would worry,’’ Riva said. His 79-year-old mother initially nursed a fever while isolating at home. She soon had to be hospitalized and fitted with an oxygen mask. Riva reported Wednesday that her condition had worsened in recent days.
‘’There are no more hopes for my mother,'' he said. ‘’I don't know what to say. I am someone who is destroyed.'' Riva emerged from two weeks of home quarantine without symptoms, so health authorities said he was ineligible for a virus test. He still has no idea if he was an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, as he fears, if he had a touch of COVID-19 and recovered, or if he somehow missed getting infected.
He has been instructed to maintain social distance and wear a mask. His ministry has been moved to social media, and his personal contact limited to a daily walk around the church grounds with the town doctor.
Parishioners show their care by leaving him milk still warm from the cow and sending messages after his Facebook-streamed Masses telling him he looks like he has lost weight. Even through his own mourning, Riva has been helping parishioners through the deaths of loved ones: Four with the coronavirus, including a 64-year-old woman and her mother, died within three days of each other.
“The family was in quarantine. We asked the funeral home to pass in front of the house so the family could say goodbye,” he said. As the crisis begins to plateau in Italy — with the number of new cases stabilizing and intensive care cases dropping — it is natural to begin to think of the “after.” Riva is drawn to an Old Testament verse from the book of Isaiah, “Watchman, what is left of the night?"
For Riva, that glimmer of light, what he called “a new humanism,” is represented by the doctors, nurses and volunteers responding to the crisis. “Through these people, who are risking everything to take care of sick people, the light of the future is already present,” Riva said. “This humanity of getting one’s hands dirty for others, not considering the self, this presents the future of humanity. Inside the evil of this story, there is something bigger: love and charity.”