ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - A little over a year ago, newspapers in the Italian diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla were praising a young doctor for sacrificing a promising career in pulmonary medicine for the priesthood.
The same newspapers are turning the spotlight back on the priest: Fr. Alberto Debbi is heroically exchanging his cassock for a decontamination suit and diving into the coronavirus-stricken trenches at the epicenter of Italy's epidemic.
"My altar will be the bed of the sick," says the 43-year-old cleric who trained as a pulmonologist — a lung doctor. On Wednesday, Debbi returned to medical service at the COVID-19 center of the Sassuolo Hospital — the same infirmary where he worked as a doctor from 2007–2013.
"There is a need at this time as never before to make available everything one has. I am a doctor who has specialized in the branch of which we now have a particular need and I certainly cannot back down," he says.
Debbi's former colleagues are delighted by his return and have been working hard to make his return possible.
"The whirlwind of emotions in these hours is great," the priest admits, "and I don't hide the fact that I am a bit worried about returning to a profession I haven't practiced for years. But I am confident I can be of help once my rusty state [in medicine] that has inevitably formed has been eliminated."
The priest has already been shuttling between ministry to young people in his parish and the sick in hospital wards.
In 2001, Debbi graduated as a doctor from the University Hospital of Modena. In 2002, he began specialist training in diseases of the respiratory system and went on to serve for seven years in the Pneumology Department in Sassuolo. Debbi also worked at the Cesare Magati Hospital in Scandiano and at the emergency room in Castelnovo Monti.
The specialist resigned his medical career to begin studies for the priesthood in 2013. He was ordained in 2018 and was appointed assistant parish priest with special responsibility for young people at the Beata Vergine delle Grazie pastoral unit in Correggio.
"Since I was a boy," he says, "I wanted to do something to put the Lord's gifts at the service of others."
Debbi does not deny that he has felt the aspiration to have a family. In 2011, he ended his engagement after a period of discernment, recognizing that marriage would never make him completely happy if God was calling him to the priesthood.
Father Debbi thanks his bishop, Msgr. Massimo Camisasca, and parish priest for the go-ahead to resume his profession. He has no intention of "abandoning" his youth and parishioners: "I will certainly be less reachable, but I have a cell phone and I will use social media to communicate with them."
"And when I can, I will say Mass and pray and return to my parish when the coronavirus is over," Debbi affirms. "I ask you for a personal prayer for me, because from Wednesday I will start my job again," he appealed on social media, in a message that has been shared by hundreds of grateful Italians.
Meanwhile, following our earlier report, Church Militant has learned the names of the priests killed by the coronavirus in the worst-hit diocese of Bergamo: Fr. Remo Luiselli (81), Fr. Gaetano Burini (83), Fr. Umberto Tombini (83), Fr. Giuseppe Berardelli (72), Fr. Giancarlo Nava (70), Fr. Silvano Sirtoli (59), Fr. Tarcisio Casali (82), Msgr. Achille Belotti (82), Fr. Mariano Carrara (72 ) and Msgr. Tarcisio Ferrari (84).
More recent clergy deaths have been reported in neighboring dioceses. Five priests have died in Parma: Fr. Giorgio Bocchi and Fr. Pietro Montali (both 89), Fr. Franco Minardi (94) and Fr. Fermo Fanfoni (82).
From Parma, Fr. Andrea Avanzini (55) is the youngest priest in Italy who has died so far. He was probably infected by his elderly mother with whom he lived and who tested positive, a source said.
In the diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla additional clergy deaths were reported. This includes Fr. Guido Mortari (83), who for 50 years served as parish priest of Saint Augustine's Church. It is not certain that the death of Fr. Giorgio Bosini (79), who was well-known in the diocese for his work with the poor, was caused by the virus. Also, the cause of the death of two twins is uncertain: Fr. Mario and Fr. Giovanni Boselli (87). Fr. Giovanni Cordani (83), parish priest of Rivergaro and long-time teacher, has been killed by the virus.
Milan diocese is reporting the death of polytechnic chaplain Fr. Marco Barbetta (82) and Fr. Luigi Giussani (70), vicar of the popular Milanese parish of San Protaso; Lodi diocese has paid tribute to Fr. Carlo Patti (66); Brescia diocese has named Fr. Giovanni Girelli (72) serving in Orzinuovi, one of the worst-affected towns; Piedmont diocese has announced the deaths of Fr. Mario Defechi (89) and Fr. Giacomo Buscaglia (82) — all killed by the virus.
Father Debbi, now again being addressed as Dr. Debbi, says he will not be defeated by the epidemic: "Above all I want to be a man of hope — a hope that does not end with disease and death."
As he reports to work at Sassuolo Hospital, Debbi already has a fan page praising his dedication to his flock.
The Italian town of Reggio Emilia together with neighboring Parma is best known for the popular Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Amid the tragedy of the coronavirus epidemic, Reggio Emilia is rapidly becoming known all over Italy for the courage and commitment of a single, saintly priest.