For missionary, a life of compassion
For missionary, a life of compassion
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 country.

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 person."

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 said.

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 together.' "

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 said.

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.


Mike's Biography

Read another 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

© 2013 Maryknoll Fathers
& Brothers Africa Region