Pope Francis calls to check on Italian cardinal in coronavirus ICU

CNA 5e5731f2bd596 183414 Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops' conference, at a press conference in Bari, Italy, on Jan. 22, 2020. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Pope Francis made a phone call this week to check in on an Italian cardinal who is in a serious condition as he battles COVID-19 after more than a week in intensive care.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops' conference and archbishop of Perugia, was hospitalized Oct. 31 after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The 78-year-old cardinal, who was moved to intensive care on Nov. 3, is reportedly in critical condition, having taken a turn for the worse this week.

His archdiocese has asked for prayers for him and those responsible for his care at Santa Maria della Misericordia Hospital in Perugia.  

Pope Francis called Bishop Marco Salvi, the auxiliary bishop of Perugia, on the evening of Nov. 10, to ask how Bassetti was faring, according to a diocesan newspaper. La Voce reported that Pope Francis encouraged Bassetti and Salvi, who is also positive for the coronavirus but asymptomatic, to "be strong, be strong, be strong."

The auxiliary bishop told Vatican News that the pope also assured him of his prayers and asked him to share his message with Bassetti.

According to an update from the hospital Nov. 9, Cardinal Bassetti's "overall clinical picture" was worsening. He is receiving medical therapies, oxygen therapy, and non-invasive ventilatory support.

"The diocesan community is enduring the grave health conditions of its Pastor with apprehension and is constantly gathered in prayer, as parish, religious and contemplative communities and as lay groups and movements," a Nov. 9 statement from the archdiocese said.

Bishop Salvi said "at this moment we are even closer spiritually to our Pastor," noting that he is surrounded by the prayers of people throughout Italy, "where his smile and his messages have entered deep into the hearts of many."

Salvi noted that Bassetti had asked particularly for prayers through the intercession of Bl. Carlo Acutis, Venerable Vittorio Trancanelli, a doctor from Perugia, and Servant of God Giampiero Morettini, a seminarian who died at the age of 37 in Perugia.

On Nov. 9, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Perugia, 82-year-old Fr. Gustavo Coletti, was the first priest of the diocese to die from COVID-19. On Nov. 11, Fr. Leonello Birettoni, 79, also died after contracting the virus.

After his diagnosis with the coronavirus, but before his hospitalization, Bassetti wrote a letter to the Catholics of his archdiocese, reflecting on the importance of the Eucharist.

"The Eucharist, especially in this difficult period, cannot be left on the margins of our lives but must be returned, with even more strength, to the center of Christian life," he wrote.

Even the difficulties Italy is experiencing, such as the spread of the epidemic, serious economic crisis, and uncertainty about education, he said, "are not beyond the Most Holy Eucharist." 

"I believe, as Paul wrote, 'that the sufferings of the present moment are not comparable to the future glory that must be revealed in us.' With 'impatience' we wait to contemplate the face of God since 'in hope we have been saved (Romans 8: 18-24),'" the cardinal wrote. "Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to hope against all hope, 'Spes contra spem.'"

Bassetti was born in Marradi, a town outside of Florence, in 1942. He was ordained a priest in 1966 and a bishop in 1994. He has been archbishop of Perugia-Città della Pieve since 2009. He was made a cardinal in 2014 by Pope Francis and in May 2017 began a five-year term as president of the Italian bishops' conference. 

Bassetti is the fourth cardinal to test positive for the coronavirus this year. In September, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the head of the Vatican's evangelization congregation, tested positive for COVID-19 while traveling to the Philippines. The Archdiocese of Manila announced that Tagle had recovered on Sept. 23.

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Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso and Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, both tested positive and recovered from COVID-19 in March.  

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