The Church in Latin America has not been spared in the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 and through the first quarter of 2021, dozens of priests in many countries died after contracting COVID-19. They succumbed to the virus while carrying out their pastoral work assisting the faithful and supporting them as they deal with fear and pain.
According to a recent statement of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference (CEV) sent to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), since 2020, when COVID-19 first began to spread across the country, 201 of the 2002 priests currently serving in Venezuela have contracted the disease. Of these, 24 subsequently died.
As reported in the bishops’ statement, “10 percent of all priests in Venezuela have become infected with COVID-19. The figures show that 11.9 percent of infected persons and 1.2 percent of all priests in the country have died of the virus.”
The CEV further explained that “those who serve the Church cannot avoid exposure to the COVID-19 virus. The priests who fulfilled their vocation of service to the community, who fulfilled their mission as ‘Doctors of the Soul’ did so knowing that, even after taking all precautions in the churches and complying with all the hygiene rules, they ran the risk of infecting themselves and, therefore, also ran the risk of dying.”
ACN has found that the circumstances of the clergy in Mexico are even more dire. The Catholic Multimedia Centre (CCM) has reported that, from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 until March 2021, five bishops, 221 priests and religious, 11 deacons and eight women religious have died from the disease.
The situation in Peru is also very serious. Particularly moving was the news of the death of Msgr. Luis Armando Bambarén Gastelumendi S.J., bishop emeritus of Chimbote and a former president of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference (CEP). He passed away March 19. Eduardo Peña Rivera, chaplain of the Peruvian Air Force (FAP) in Piura, a region in the northern part of the country, also died from COVID-19 in March.
The most recent loss was that of Father Dergi Facundo. The young priest, who had brought solace to those suffering from the disease by administering the sacraments in the northern regions of the country, died April 19.
Columbia has also seen the loss of a bishop: Bishop Luis Adriano Piedrahita of Santa Marta died Jan. 11, 2021. According to the information available to ACN, ten Jesuit priests who lived in the same house in the Chapinero district of Bogotá died within a period of two weeks in late 2020. Between April 2020 and January 2021, 12 Jesuits in the country died of the virus.
The death of Franciscan monk Father Gabriel Gutiérrez Ramírez April 2 was a severe blow to Catholics in the Columbian capital. He was known as the “Angel of the Outcasts” because of his apostolate serving the homeless and the establishment of the foundation Callejeros de la Misericordia (“Street workers of Mercy”).
No recent information is available from Bolivia; however, in mid-2020 the portal Información de la Comunidad de Bolivia” (Information service of the religious community of Bolivia, Infodecom), reported that 13 priests had died of COVID-19. One of them was Bishop Eugenio Scarpellini of El Salto. The Archdiocese of Cochabamba lost five priests to the epidemic last February.
“Church life never stands still,” wrote Auxiliary Bishop José Trinidad Fernández of Caracas and secretary general of the CEV, in the most recent statement released by the conference. The bishop encouraged the people not to lose hope because “God is with us during our daily lives; after all, we are God’s Temple. God lives in the heart, which does not leave any room there for sadness, disillusionment, and disappointment.”
The CEV further also said that, amidst the fear and pain caused by the pandemic, the faithful are looking to “come closer to God, to receive solace for their souls. The priests try to respond to this fundamental need by dedicating themselves with all of their humanity, while still adhering to all the necessary precautions.”
CAN’s Head of Projects Regina Lynch emphasized that “the priests and religious sisters often contracted the disease while pursuing their heroic work of dedication and service to those most in need or while caring for the health of the soul. This is extremely important work, because we Christians are not only concerned about the health of the physical body.”
In 2020, ACN donated more than $1.8M million in support of a total of 146 projects to help the local Churches in Latin America deal with the impact of COVID-19. The organization is currently supporting more than 7,200 priests on the continent with Mass stipends.