Aerial view of the graves of Covid-19 victims at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery in Manaus, Amazon State, Brazil, on April 15, 2021. (MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Clergy hit hard, especially Deacons By Eduardo Campos Lima
— São Paulo — Covid-19 has claimed more than 3,000 lives per day on average over the past week, the most by far worldwide. The country of 212 million has lost more than 365,000 people to the disease, putting Brazil behind only the United States in total numbers of confirmed deaths.
Médecins Sans Frontières described the situation this week as one of impending humanitarian catastrophe, as hospitals reported they have exhausted some drugs and are running dangerously low on other supplies.
Covid-19 has claimed at least 69 priests’ lives, according to the Bishops’ Conference’s National Commission of Presbyters (known as CNP in Portuguese). Six bishops, including a cardinal, have also been victims of the disease.
That figure only includes diocesan priests, so the actual number of deaths in the clergy is certainly higher.
The National Commission of Deacons says at least 42 deaths have been reported among their rank since the beginning of the pandemic.
According to Deacon Francisco Salvador Pontes Filho, president of the National Commission of Deacons, the number of permanent deacons who died between January 1st and April 10 is almost reaching the total number of deaths reported in 2020.
“It’s much worse now in the second wave. Last year, 24 deacons died. Only in the first months of 2021, there have been already 18 deaths,” Pontes Filho told the Catholic Herald.
Most of the deceased were elderly men with other diseases. But a few deacons with ages between 30 and 40 also died.
“There have been recent cases of deacons who caught the disease and transmitted it to their wives or vice versa. Six of them died,” he added.
Pontes Filho estimates that there are 6,000 permanent deacons in Brazil. In a country with a historical lack of priests – there are only 27,400 of them to serve 123 million Catholics –, deacons play a central role in the pastoral dimension, he argued.
“They’re very serious about their roles and have a significant social work in our communities. They have to take care of themselves during the pandemic. We need them and we need the priests,” he affirmed.
Priests among the people
“As priests, we must go to the people, offer them solace and help, be with them. We can’t just protect ourselves and stay inside of a bubble. That’s how most of us end up catching the virus,” Father José Adelson da Silva Rodrigues, CNP’s president, told the Catholic Herald.
According to Rodrigues, the commission has been continually asking the priests to take all necessary precautionary measures in order to avoid contagion. In most regions in Brazil, State governors and city mayors determined the suspension of in-person religious services, so the contact of priests with large crowds has been minimized.
“But the disease seems to be out of control in the country, due to the way it’s being handled. Many deaths could have been avoided,” Bishop José Valdeci Santos Mendes of the Diocese of Brejo, in Maranhão State, told the Herald.
Criticism of Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has always rejected the idea of imposing a national lockdown, a measure that public health experts strongly recommended as a key to reducing contagion in the South American country.
Bolsonaro has also been criticised for purchasing an insufficient number of vaccine doses for Brazilians. The immunization campaign in the country is progressing slowly. Only 11.8 percent of the population has already taken at least one shot. Brazil already had 13.7 million confirmed cases of infection and 362,000 deaths.
Fr. Melo’s story
According to Bishop Mendes, five out of 26 priests in his diocese have been infected with the novel coronavirus. On March 26, one of them died. Fr. Claudinei Pereira Melo was 56 years old and suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes.
“His case unfortunately evolved in a very fast way. He called me on March 20 and told me he had flu symptoms and felt tired. He had a respiratory allergy and thought it was related to it,” Mendes said.
Two days later, Fr. Melo tested negative for Covid-19. “But healthcare agents realized he needed assistance and took him to the hospital. There, doctors discovered his lungs had an impact of 75 percent,” said Mendes.
Melo was taken to a UCI bed in São Luís, Maranhão State capital, but died shortly after hospitalization.
“We’re shocked. We know that many Brazilians are dying, but we feel a great pain when it happens with someone close to us,” Mendes said.
Church leaders cautious
Although Covid-19 denialism has been huge in Brazil, most priests are following the recommendations of healthcare authorities and scientists in order to protect themselves.
“The virus can reach us in surprising ways,” Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho told the Catholic Herald. “We aren’t infected only during celebrations. It can also happen at a grocery store,” he said. Paloschi himself had to struggle with the disease in March and is now fully recovered. He said a significant number of priests in his diocese became ill.
In Manaus, where a new strain of the virus gave birth to the second pandemic wave at the end of 2020, 12 priests have been hospitalized. “Five of them died. We don’t know the total number of infected, because many people were asymptomatic,” Archbishop Leonardo Steiner told the Catholic Herald.
“Now, the second wave has been declining in the region and people already talk about a third wave, given that vaccination is taking so long,” Steiner added.
In the Diocese of Cruzeiro do Sul, which includes communities in Amazonas and in Acre State, at least four priests have been infected – one of them had the disease twice. The Italian-born bishop Flávio Giovenale decided to suspend all in-person celebrations, even though the government allows limited gatherings from Monday to Friday.
“Thank God all priests are alive. They’re all young. But all Masses are being celebrated online, and the churches are open for prayers during the week,” he told the Catholic Herald.
Archbishop Zanoni Demettino Castro of Feira de Santana, in Bahia State, also decided to restrict in-person celebrations.
“Most of the celebrations here are happening virtually. In the beginning of the pandemic, we created a committee to monitor the progress of the disease in the region. All the people involved in church activities are wearing face masks and taking social distancing measures,” he affirmed. Castro also had Covid-19 at the end of 2020.
Eduardo Campos Lima holds a degree in journalism and a PhD in literary studies from the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Between 2016 and 2017, he was a Fulbright visiting research student at Columbia University. He has written for several international religion outlets, including Crux, Religion News Service, Sight Magazine, and Réformés.