On Friday, March 27, I received the news that Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay had died of COVID-19, becoming the first priest believed to have died of coronavirus in the United States.
Earlier that day, Pope Francis said during his special Urbi et Orbi. blessing from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica: “We are all in the same boat.”
Few times in our lifetime have we had this sensation of sharing the same experience with the whole human race as we feel right now. At the same time, the experience is different for each community, each family, each person.
At the beginning of Lent, we didn’t imagine that we would be forced to give up so many things we take for granted: going to Mass, going to a restaurant, riding the subway, having dinner with our extended family on Sunday.
That doesn’t compare with the suffering visited upon so many people that have lost their jobs, their health,
friends, relatives, or their own lives.
Yes, we are all in the same boat, but the price we have paid for the ride is different for each one of us. Father Jorge paid it with his life.
It is a terrible loss for all who knew him. We wonder how God could allow something like this to happen, we question the power of prayer, the very meaning of our lives. Our faith is shaken.
In February 2016, I was lucky to travel to Mexico to cover the Papal visit for The Tablet and Currents News with Father Jorge. One day, when we were. walking near the Cathedral of Mexico, two women approached Father Jorge and introduced themselves.
While I waited, I noticed that he was giving the absolution to one of the women while the other waited at a prudent distance. Then the other one approached him, made her confession and received his absolution.
The following day we were going to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city in southern Mexico where the Holy Father would meet the indigenous communities. While waiting for our flight, I witnessed another ‘confession on the spot’ by Father Jorge.
I told him I understood why someone would take the opportunity to do their confession before taking a plane, but that he would have to explain to me why total strangers were asking him for confession on the streets of Mexico. He laughed heartily at my joke with his usual good humor. But the truth is that even strangers, by pure instinct, knew he was a man of God as soon as they saw him.
The following day at Chiapas we had to wake up at 4 a.m. to cover the Papal Mass in the outskirts of the city. We followed the Holy Father during that day. By the time we were done with our assignments and articles for TV and the paper, it was almost 11 p.m. We were tired and hungry when we finally sat down and ordered dinner at a local restaurant. Father Jorge excused himself right before we were about to eat to take a phone call. After 15 minutes, we went looking for him. He was still on the phone — a window in his parish school had broken and he was making sure it was repaired in time to resume classes the following day.
We finally managed to persuade him to go inside the restaurant to have our late dinner. This is the kind of priest we have lost. And our faith doesn’t make us immune to suffering. The most mysterious words of the Gospel are those that describe Jesus’ reaction to the death of his friend Lazarus. The evangelist says that
“Jesus was greatly distressed” and then he adds, “Jesus wept.”
Father Jorge died on a Friday. That Sunday, the Gospel reading for the Mass was the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. At the end of the reading, Jesus says to Martha: “Your brother will rise again.” He is saying it to us now when we celebrate his resurrection.
Father Jorge lived and died with the hope of the resurrection. Yes, our brother will rise again.