Father Ortiz and Father Basile: Witnesses to the resurrection

By brother priests from the Redemptoris Mater Seminary 

With respect and permission from the families, we give this tribute.

Fathers Jorge Ortiz and Gioacchino Basile are the first two pastors who succumbed to COVID-19 in the United States. Both were formed at the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Kearny. They studied together, were ordained for the Archdiocese of Newark and both were pastors in the Diocese of Brooklyn. However, they had very different personalities: one was a lawyer from a wealthy family in Mexico, the other a bricklayer from a poor family in Calabria, Italy. Neither one of them chose to come to the United States, but they were sent here by chance. Yet, they were united by their missionary zeal until the very end. We wish to present the exemplary lives of these two missionary priests.

Father Jorge Ortiz is the first Catholic priest in the U.S. to die of COVID-19. Born Oct. 16, 1970, in Mexico City to Jorge Ortiz and Estela Garay, he was the second oldest in a family of five children. His grandparents brought him up in a Catholic environment. However, when he was 18 and began law school, he abandoned church attendance, spending time with friends and parties instead. When he was 22, Ortiz was invited to listen to the catechesis of the Neocatechumenal Way—an itinerary of faith to rediscover Christianity—and, through it, he came back to the Church.

He practiced law and was engaged to a young woman he was planning to marry. In 1996, while he was participating in a vocational meeting organized by the Neocatechumenal Way, Ortiz felt the call to the priesthood. He left his fiancée, his law practice and his wealthy father and went to the Redemptoris Mater Seminary of Newark, an archdiocesan seminary located in Kearny that prepares priests to be missionaries through the Neocatechumenal Way. He was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart on May 29, 2004. After serving some years as parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish in Plainfield, in 2009, he was sent to start a new Missio ad Gentes for the unchurched in the Diocese of Brooklyn. In 2014, Father Ortiz was appointed pastor at the Parish of St. Brigid, where he served until his death.

Until the early ‘90s, St. Brigid was mainly an Irish/Italian-American parish, but today it is almost 100 percent Hispanic. It sits in a rough neighborhood, but Father Ortiz moved in easily, and in little time, he came to know everybody. He could walk through the neighborhood and everybody would greet him, and for each one, he had a word: “I did not see you,” “I did not see your son” or “Why don’t you come to church?”

The police came to know him for his presence in the neighborhood and many times called him to help on the scene of an accident. In each case, Father Ortiz would go to speak and comfort the person for as long as it was necessary.

The Diocese of Brooklyn appointed him responsible for the Hispanic Apostolate and the Guadalupe Group, which in little time grew from 300 people to more than 3,000. In his parish, he followed the charismatics, the cursillistas and every other group.

Father Ortiz inherited a school on the verge of closure and managed to rebuild it as a real Catholic school, attracting many children and families. He never sent away any kid for lack of funds, but managed to find scholarships for poor families. He also began a great effort of re-modeling and reorganizing St. Brigid’s school, rectory and church.

He was dedicated to the youth and formed youth groups for teenagers and young adults, which became very successful. They would listen to him and he would always find time to listen to them. The poor were never rejected at his door and he would always give them something from his “poor box.” He also helped marriages to reconcile. After five years at St. Brigid, seeing that many Hispanics had left the Church and the youth spoke English, he started a project of evangelization in English through the Neo-Catechumenal Way. In a Hispanic parish, three English-speaking communities were formed with about 200 people.

In November 2019, he attended a retreat for priests from the Redemptoris Mater seminaries, during which every priest shared his experience in the mission. Recently, he was in Mexico to conclude his itinerary of initiation with his Neocatechumenal community, to which Father Ortiz was very attached because, through it, he had come back to the Church and had discovered the vocation to serve as a presbyter.

Lately, Father Ortiz was not well. He had diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic bronchitis and heart problems. His bad health did not stop him and he continued his pastoral work with great zeal. Father Ortiz knew he was a sinner, and for this, he was able to announce mercy to sinners. After the initial coronavirus outbreak, he continued to be among the sheep—the church was always open, every morning there was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and after, he would speak with people and confess. When he felt the symptoms, he isolated himself and went to the hospital. Parishioners and priests from his seminary tried to reach him, but they were not allowed, and he spent his last days completely alone. On the day of his death (March 27), two priests managed to enter the hospital only to be told that just in that moment, Ortiz had passed.

Dear Jorge, rest in peace. The Lord granted you the great honor to be the first pastor in the United States to have given his life for the sheep during this pandemic. In paradisum deducant te angeli, may the angels lead you into paradise

Father Gioacchino Basile was born Feb. 8, 1960, in Reggio Calabria, Southern Italy. The first of three children, he was born so small that his cradle was a shoebox. After a few months, he contracted polio and could not walk. During a procession in honor of Our Lady of Consolation when Basile was less than two years old, his mother promised the Virgin Mary that if her son could walk, she would offer him to her. During that very procession, Basile’s legs strengthened and he was able to stand. He grew up very sickly, and this made him an introvert, insecure and shy. He could not speak Italian, but only the Calabrese dialect, and very little at that. He tried to study at university, but he did not make it and began to work as a bricklayer to help his poor family.

In 1977, his sister Gisella entered the Neocatechumenal Way, and the following year, she invited Basile, who went to the initial catechesis. During the final retreat, he spoke often with the head of the team of catechists, who told us: “Gioacchino was crying very often and said he was a great sinner and that he had never accepted to be very short and limp. I witnessed a deep conversion in Gioacchino because, at the end of the retreat, he stopped crying and repeated, ‘I do not deserve this love of the Lord.’”

The Way transformed Basile’s life. After a few years, he offered himself as an itinerant catechist and was sent with a team to catechize in small villages in Calabria where “foreigners” were looked at with suspicion and many hostile acts were committed against them. One of the catechists who was with him recalled that the first time Basile was supposed to give a catechesis, he stood up three times and the only thing he could utter was, “Courage brothers. Rejoice. God loves you!” The pastor asked the team not to let Basile speak anymore. Yet, the next day, the same pastor asked to have him speak again because all of the youth had been impressed by him. He came back from this experience transformed and was eventually able to do catechesis in Italian.

In 1989, he had a fiancée, but in a vocational meeting organized by the Neocatechumenal Way, he felt the call to the priesthood. His father was completely opposed to the idea and did not speak to him for two months. On the day he left for the seminary he had been assigned by lottery, his father finally came to greet him and blessed him. He arrived in Newark in 1990.

Everybody was skeptical about Basile learning two new languages since he barely spoke Italian. At one point, he wanted to abandon his studies. He was in a gathering at a hotel and realized that someone stole all of his personal belongings except his English Bible. Basile said, “I understood that the Lord called me to lose my life in that way, and that I will come out victorious.” He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Newark on May 27, 1995.

In 1998, the archbishop sent him to Puerto Rico, where he served first as parochial vicar and then as pastor. He rebuilt the church after a hurricane and enlarged it for a growing congregation. “He never said no when asked for something, and he became extremely well-known everywhere,” one of the parishioners remembered.

A friend from Italy met him recently and was astonished to see Basile completely changed—he spoke English, Spanish and Italian, sometimes mixing them all, very fluently. He said it was like seeing a living miracle. “Behold, I make all things new.” So it was for Father Basile.

After 10 years in Puerto Rico, the archbishop of Newark released Father Basile to help the Diocese of Brooklyn, and he was sent to the Parish of St. Gabriel. Father Basile started this new ministry with zeal, making the parish a true center of evangelization that welcomed everybody. He began a transformation of the facilities (rectory, church, convent) and supported all the programs of the parish—religious education, marriage preparation, home visitations, cursillos, charismatics and the New Evangelization—to reach out not only to those attending the parish but also the many “lost sheep.” Attendance at St. Gabriel grew from 500 to more than 1,000 people.

In these last two years, he was busy planning a whole remodeling of the church with a beautiful fresco that he hoped to complete in time for his 25th anniversary of priestly ordination. In the last months, his diabetes, lung and hearts problems worsened. However, he continued to be close to his parishioners, confessing, visiting them and speaking with those who were in difficulty. After contracting COVID-19, he was hospitalized and later died on April 4.

Carissimo Gioacchino, you can say: “I ran the race, I won the crown, I kept the faith!”

Dearest Jorge and Gioacchino, you have been examples and encouragement for all of us who have seen the miracles that the Lord performed in your lives. You died as true missionaries, with your boots on, as martyrs during this coronavirus pandemic. Pray for us that we may have zeal and courage to announce the Good News.