For missionary, a life of compassion
by Gary Stern, The Journal News June 22, 2008
OSSINING - Talking about his upcoming trip, the Rev. Michael Bassano was
so relaxed and charming that he could pass for a decompressing
suburbanite heading for a few weeks of golf, fishing and vino in the
But it was not the promise of material comforts putting him at ease.
Bassano was heading for Tanzania, a place he has never been, to resume
his ministry of caring for lonely souls dying of AIDS.
He couldn't be happier.
"Something happens," he said. "It transforms them and transforms my life
in some way. There is something beyond suffering, where we are called to
a greater wisdom or awareness."
Bassano, 59, is a Catholic priest and a Maryknoll missioner. If his
explanation sounds more Eastern than Roman, consider that he just
finished a 10-year assignment in Thailand, half of which involved
comforting AIDS patients in a Buddhist temple serving as a hospice.
About 500 people whom he washed, changed and sang to, and with whom he
made unspoken spiritual connections, died during his time there. Most
had been rejected by their families and had only Bassano and the
Buddhist monks to hold their bony hands.
"They've taught me to appreciate every moment we have," he said last
week at Maryknoll's Ossining headquarters. "It is a very Buddhist
understanding. We have the present moment, so let's live it out to be
touched by each other."
Bassano's ministry at the temple, about two hours north of Bangkok, has
received great acclaim, in part because of photos of his work taken by
the prominent photojournalist James Nachtwey. An exhibit of Nachtwey's
photos of Bassano opened in Paris last month, and they were featured in
an eight-page spread in the French magazine Paris Match.
Bassano's 10-year assignment in Thailand ended at the close of 2007. He
spent a few months traveling and recharging his pastoral batteries, with
his final days at Maryknoll, before leaving June 9 for Tanzania, where
his only hope is to care for AIDS patients.
He took one bag, with four shirts and three pairs of pants. All his
ministry requires is faith and a desire to help.
"I tell jokes, I sing songs, trying to bring some hope to them," he
said. "Sometimes I'll dance for them - nothing big. We can still
celebrate life in the midst of a terrible situation. There is still
something to smile about."
The Rev. John Barth, a member of Maryknoll's General Council who
formerly served in Cambodia, said Bassano's work illustrates an
important element of evangelism.
"Mike would fit very well into the mission that Mother Teresa and her
sisters had and have: compassion and love for the poorest of the poor,
people rejected by society and family, people who would otherwise die on
the street," Barth said. "By doing this work, not for anything in
return, not grimacing at the sight or smell, that is a beautiful witness
of love. He is very much an evangelizer as a priest."
Bassano grew up in Binghamton, where he remembers being impressed by the
priests who stopped in the church parking lot when he and his friends
played stickball. He was fascinated by images of Jesus - both in movies
like "Ben-Hur" and on the large crucifix in his church.
"I wanted to be like that, to be compassionate to people, regardless of
who they were, saints or sinners," he said.
Mary Peg Mathis, who went to Seton Central Catholic High School in
Binghamton with Bassano and now works there as a secretary, said that
Bassano's kindness and basic humanity always won people over.
"He is exceptionally humble, a kind and fun-loving person," she said.
"He makes everyone feel special as an individual. ... He's a very true
Bassano was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse in 1975. Five
years later, he was struck by the political unrest in El Salvador when
Archbishop Oscar Romero - to whom he bears a remarkable resemblance -
was assassinated and four churchwomen, including two Maryknoll sisters,
were raped and murdered. Five years after that, he was serving an
inner-city parish in Utica when, he insists, he heard a voice saying,
"Go to Maryknoll."
So he went. He lunched with Maryknoll priests and heard their stories of
serving the poor around the globe.
In 1987, his diocese lent him to Maryknoll for five years, which would
turn into a 10-year stay in Chile. He learned firsthand about government
oppression and the costs paid by dissenters.
And then he was on to Thailand, first to work in the Bangkok slums and
then to serve at the AIDS hospice two hours north, where some 160 sick
and abandoned people waited for a messenger of hope.
Bassano recalled one woman to whom he brought ice water every day. One
day she asked if he would be back the next day. When he assured her he
would, she smiled. Hours later, she died.
"As I reflected on it, she was saying goodbye to me and saying thank you
through that smile, thank you for giving my life value and dignity," he
He also became close to a Buddhist monk dying of AIDS (several monks,
Bassano believes, were ordained after becoming ill). They would walk
arm-in-arm with him on the temple grounds.
"He would say, 'Jesus and the Buddha are brothers,' " Bassano said. "I
would say, 'This is what it is all about, walking through this journey
When the monk died, Bassano helped clean the body and wrap it in saffron
robes for cremation.
Things have improved in Thailand since 2004, when the government finally
started to distribute antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients.
To preserve his health and sanity, Bassano made time each evening for a
meal, an hour of "Law & Order" on cable and some reading. On Friday
evenings, he headed to Bangkok for a fish sandwich at McDonald's,
breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts, a Saturday morning matinee and Mass at the
Catholic cathedral on Sunday morning.
He'll have few such luxuries in northern Tanzania. And the patients
he'll care for will have fewer opportunities to get the drugs they need
to survive. The government is only beginning to get medicines to rural
areas, despite the great need, Bassano said.
But Bassano has no reservations about what he'll encounter or the
challenges he'll face for the next decade.
"I want to be among the people and with them, and do whatever I can," he
A decade from now, he hopes to begin his last mission in China.
Copyright ©2007 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper serving
Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties in New York.
article about Mike and his Ministry
Many Maryknollers in Africa are involved in AIDS Ministries
Learn a little History about Maryknoll's AIDS Ministries
across the Globe
Maryknollers in Musoma, Tanzania