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Paul Vallely: Heroism for a few, but self-denial for all

27 March 2020

Lesser sacrifices can speak of Christ, says Paul Vallely


Fr Giuseppe Berardelli

Fr Giuseppe Berardelli

ON TUESDAY, as it was the 40th anniversary of the day on which Óscar Romero was martyred, I was reading a sermon on the new saint by the great Dominican preacher the late Herbert McCabe, when an item flashed up on my phone. It was news of an Italian priest, Fr Giuseppe Berardelli, who had died of the coronavirus after giving up his respirator to a younger sufferer.

The confluence was poignant. In Italy, some 30 priests have died from the virus after ministering to people during the pandemic. But Fr Berardelli did more than minister: like Romero, he acted in full knowledge of the consequences of what he was doing. He had been in hospital for several days on a ventilator, which had been bought by his parish to help him fight the infection. Aged 72, he volunteered to give up his machine when he heard of a younger patient without one. He died soon after.

Most of us are not called to acts that are so heroic. Fr McCabe spoke in his sermon of how “God so loved the world that he sent his son, not to set the world to rights but to be one of us.” Most of us live in a world that is considerably more banal than that of St Óscar Romero or Fr Berardelli.

An enclosed Capuchin nun, serendipitously called Sister Romero, revealed recently that she was often contacted by people outside her cloister who asked her to pray for them because of some particular problem. With the world increasingly in lockdown, she reported, the predicament about which she was now being asked to pray by outsiders in self-isolation was that they might be saved from being “bored”.

Coping with isolation is clearly going to require us to draw on inner resources that have gone largely uncultivated in our culture. Another cleric inspired by Romero offers us some pointers on how to do this in a moving sermon to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship at 8.10 a.m. in two days’ time.

The Revd Edgardo Colón-Emeric, a Methodist who teaches at Duke University, in the United States, has just published Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision, which draws parallels between the witness of the murdered Archbishop and that of John Wesley. On Sunday, he will recall how, when Romero was assassinated at the altar of his hospital chapel, he had just finished preaching from John 12: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

That fruit, in our humdrum quotidian world, is the fruit of a quieter kind of sacrifice. “Prayer can turn a kitchen into an altar, a quarantine into a Lenten pilgrimage, a hospital room into an Upper Room, and an ordinary person into a witness,” is his Passiontide message. “The Word who is Christ remains in the voice of his witnesses.”

Yes, it can be heard in the nurse who risks infection and burnout for the sake of caring for the sick. But it also “sounds like the voice of a young person risking loneliness and depression for the sake of protecting others from becoming sick”. Just because we are restricting ourselves to our own homes does not mean that we have turned our back on the world.

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