No greater love: the priest who gave his life

Self-sacrifice: Father Giuseppe Berardelli died last week in Lovere hospital, Bergamo. © Twitter

Is sacrificing one’s life the most powerful act of kindness? Reports say that an elderly priest in Italy gave up his respirator so that a younger man, a stranger, could survive the virus.

It is the opposite of what we are often told to do.

In an emergency on an airplane, the stewards remind us to help ourselves before helping others.

It makes sense. You will not be able to properly look after other people until you yourself are safe.

However, in times of crisis, when moral questions become daily decisions, some incredible individuals opt for the benevolent ahead of the sensible.

Last week, Father Giuseppe Berardelli, the main priest of Casnigo in Northern Italy, died in hospital. He was 72 years old and suffering from Covid-19.

According to the hospital in Lombardy – one of the places worst hit by coronavirus – his devoted parishioners had bought him a respirator to help him overcome the disease.

And then, so other reports say, he gave it to a younger patient he had never met, in an act of incredible self-sacrifice.

Like thousands of others in Italy, Father Giuseppe Berardelli’s bout of Covid-19 sadly proved to be fatal.

At least 50 Italian priests have now been killed by the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Pope Francis led a prayer for the deceased, praising their “heroic example”.

However, one of Father Giuseppe’s friends has denied the respirator donation actually took place.

Nonetheless, the story is incredibly heart-warming and inspiring. It echoes other historical acts of great kindness.

Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar imprisoned at Auschwitz, offered to be starved to death in the place of another man during a cruel Nazi punishment.

John Robert Fox, a US lieutenant during World War Two, drew German forces to his exact position before calling on his comrades-in-arms to drop artillery on him. This allowed allied troops to move to safety.

Today, the spread of the deadly pandemic has made billions of people around the world give up small freedoms to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

Health workers across the world are risking their lives on a daily basis in order to help others.

One of the first high-profile victims of the coronavirus was Li Wenliang, a doctor who had sought to warn the world of the coming threat.

In the UK, at least one NHS worker is in a critical condition with Covid-19.

Is sacrificing one’s life the most powerful act of kindness?

True altruism

Yes. To give up one’s own life so that another can live is the ultimate act of generosity. It is an age-old storyline: from Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi to Bing Bong in Inside out. The very thought tugs at the heart-strings and evokes a selflessness that few will feel capable of. Sacrifice is truly a gift given freely. It is the only act that can expect nothing in return.

Then again, though emotionally powerful, sacrifice also reduces kindness to a single moment. A whole lifetime of virtue and care takes so much more effort and dedication. A single act of kindness can never be as powerful as years of generosity and benevolence. Furthermore, if you are dead, you cannot be sure that the person you want to save is actually saved.

You Decide

  1. Is there anything you would be willing to give your life for?
  2. Is self-sacrifice ALWAYS a morally virtuous act?


  1. On a group chat with friends, discuss what other acts of kindness you have seen take place during the coronavirus outbreak. Reflect on the most impressive one: is it something that you think you could do yourself?
  2. On one side of paper, write the letter you would write to Father Giuseppe Berardelli if it had been you who’d received his respirator.

Some People Say...

“If we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we fear guilt or retribution.”

JM Coetzee, South African author, from his novel, Disgrace

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that self-sacrifice has a long history in culture and mythology. It is the simplest example of doing good for someone else. There is no chance of there being any ulterior motive – it is an act of kindness, plain and simple. Self-sacrifice also appeals to our moral sense that selfishness is bad and that altruism (the selfless concern for the well-being of others) is good.
What do we not know?
In a world of infinite possibilities, we cannot know if sacrificing one’s self can ever be the best option. We do not know whether kindness needs to be so dramatic in order to be effective. It is possible the kindest people are those who are able to give again and again, not just once.

Word Watch

Well-meaning and kind.
A comune in the Province of Bergamo in the Italian region of Lombardy
The new disease caused by the coronavirus, which has spread to most countries around the world and killed thousands
A region in Northern Italy. Its capital is Milan.
Members of the local parish or churchgoing community
Medical equipment that helps a person to breathe more easily.
A short period (of time).
Franciscan friar
Member of the Catholic Church practising in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi. He followed the street preaching and poverty of Jesus Christ.
Nazi death camp where over a million people lost their lives during WW2.
Fellow soldiers.
Li Wenliang
A Chinese doctor who messaged fellow medics in December warning of the new virus, but was investigated by police for “spreading rumours” before dying of Covid-19.
Bing Bong
Riley’s childhood imaginary friend in the Pixar film, he sacrifices himself to save Riley’s emotions, thereby allowing her to grow up.
Tugs at the heart-strings
Something that deeply affects feelings; makes one feel emotional or sentimental.

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