MUMBAI, India – At least 117 Catholic priests in India died in the 33 days between 10 April and May 14, 2021.
Capuchin Father Suresh Mathew, the editor of Indian Currents, compiled a list of the priests who have died during the country’s deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, although he has discovered it is just scratching the surface of the losses India’s Church has suffered.
“During the first wave, we heard a few names of priests who lost their lives to COVID-19,” he said, speaking about India’s less severe outbreak in 2020.
In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” Life began to resume, and so did attendance at cricket matches, religious pilgrimages and political rallies for Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.
Four months later, cases and deaths have exploded, the country’s vaccine rollout has faltered, and public anger and mistrust have grown.
The Catholic Church, although making up less than 3 percent of the population, has been playing an outsized role in offering health and social services to the affected population. Now the Church’s ministers are paying the price.
“During the second wave, especially after Easter, every day we received news of priests dying due to coronavirus. Being a missionary priest, I wanted to know the number of the confreres who died,” Mathew told Crux.
“I wanted to know the extent of the tragedy and the reasons. With journalistic interest, I began compiling the list of priests who died in the second wave. I approached the deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, and he gave me around 20 names of priests. But Jose Kavi, the editor of Matters India, gave me the names of numerous priests who succumbed to the virus,” the priest explained.
After he prepared the list of 117 names, he sent it to each individual bishop in India.
“Within 24 hours, my inbox was flooded with messages of names of priests who died. A few in the list were not COVID casualties. Right now, I can say more than 120 priests died in India between April 1 and April 15,” he said.
Mathew said it was very important to keep track of the number of priests who are dying during the pandemic, and called on the leadership at the bishops’ conference to develop a plan to document the data and statistics.
“The number of deaths of priests is higher than the national average of COVID deaths and we should do a deep study into the reasons for the deaths,” the priest said.
“Importantly many priests were around 40, and died in their prime. More than 20 were Jesuits. We need to make a study of this: Why are so many young priests dying in this coronavirus second wave? Our brother priests should not remain mere statistics,” he said.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, the president of the bishops’ conference told Crux the Church in India “is pained with the high number of priests who lost their lives during this second wave of COVID.”
“Our priests have given their lives in service, to the people. many of our young priests who died were actively serving their communities, administering the sacraments – with due social distancing and wearing masks – during Easter,” he added.
“Our priests out of pastoral zeal gave their lives in service and succumbed to the virus. Many of our young priests with their missionary zeal, and even with the necessary precaution, paid with their lives: A heavy price for their devotion in the fight against virus,” the cardinal said.
Gracias said the leaders of the Church are experiencing “deep sorrow at the high number of our priest due to virus related deaths.”
“Our priests bless those suffering the most from the virus and sadly our priests die; maybe even more than the rest, the death toll among priests is higher. While we are plunged into grief, we are filled with hope that our priests have given their lives in service to the end. They are shepherds who smell of their sheep,” he said, using one of Pope Francis’s favorite sayings.
Gracias said the Church in India will offer Mass for the souls of those who died after contracting the coronavirus.