“Everything that Happens in Your Life is Done for You”

Over the last five months, Dr. Capetti has been at the frontlines of the battle against the Coronavirus in Italy. Following his striking presentation to some University students we decided to contact him and deepen the conversation with him.
Alessia Berardi and Adam Giancola

On May 23, 2020, we joined a call with a group of university students across North America to listen to a virtual presentation by Dr. Amedeo Capetti. Over the last five months, Dr. Capetti has been at the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus in Italy. Much to our surprise, Dr. Capetti did not limit the scope of his talk to the current medical crisis; instead, he spoke about the beauty of his life and the discovery of God’s presence waiting for him each day. Despite not being healthcare professionals, we found that Dr. Capetti’s words touched on many aspects of life relevant to us. Among other things, he spoke about the drama of work and the relationships that have transformed with his colleagues, family members, and friends. We were so fascinated by the joy of this man and the freshness of his life that we contacted him to ask some of our own questions, and to learn more about him. Below are excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Capetti, held on June 8 , 2020.

Adam: I was really struck by what you said because it offered a promise for a kind of work and a kind of life that had something to do with me. The point I have returned to the most was your insistence that what you are called to do in the hospital is not any different from what each of us is called to do. You gave the example of speaking with friends who said that their work seems very flat; they are unable to see the meaning in their work in the way that you do. You replied to them: “but when this pandemic is over, the country will be on its knees, and your work will help us to be less on our knees.” This response intrigued me, because I see in my work that there is a desire to contribute and to respond, but there is a struggle between wanting to do something for the world and also having to do all the mundane things that are involved in my work. Sometimes it seems that I am able to do one, but I forget the other. So you might have a big desire but you’re not looking at all the little things that are in front of you, or you’re so consumed by all of the small things that you forget about the desire that you have to contribute to the world.

Amedeo: What I was saying is something that applies to work, but there is something even more essential. The more the awareness of God is clear in your life, the more it makes you happy, sure, because you know where things are going, and you don’t need to be afraid. Even when everyone dies around you, it’s not an end. You see things in a very different way. It’s someone who asks you to stay with them, to help them.

Maybe your dreams will become true as they are, or maybe you will be asked to live your relationship with God in the normal life, where nothing is great; nothing will go anywhere. To me, this was my experience with COVID-19. I said to myself: “there is this thing going on and I have to make everyone I know aware of this, because it’s very important. The awareness that we don’t possess anything; that everything is a gift.” And so I called a friend and I said, “since people know who you are, why don’t you write something like that?” And he replied: “No, do it yourself.” And from then on, I started to be called here and there and there. And I said: “okay, if God wants it, I will do it.”

It’s also essential in another sense. I don’t understand why people suddenly know who I am. Every time I ask why, there is an increasing awareness of the presence of God in my life. In the end, this awareness is what moves the world, because then you would move without expecting anything in return. Because what you are doing is already your return.

I’m quite accustomed to making a lot of plans in my hospital, because I’m responsible for research. When the pandemic first began, I started looking at plasma transfusion from convalescence in COVID patients. But then the Italian government told us to stop. Other hospitals went on with the research and succeeded, while in our hospital we could not go on. I had the head of hematology calling me angry saying: “we could have been at the forefront of this, and now we are backstage. So I am angry because no one has helped us.” I can be angry only for one reason: I’ve seen from at least one article that this research could have done a great deal of good for our patients, but we didn’t have the opportunity. And this makes me sad. But I’m not angry for the fact that my name doesn’t go anywhere or that his name doesn’t go anywhere. That’s not a problem.

When I saw that there were a lot of university professors willing to pursue this research, I said: “Okay, that’s yours. Take it, and do whatever you want. Bring it forth, but I don’t need to be there.” For myself, I already know that I have done what I can do. I am free from this. Whether I become a celebrity has no worth at all in my relationship with God. I can be “no one” all my life, but in this relationship I can be whole, and this is what really matters to me; it’s what makes me happy.

It is a strange message, and I’m not sure it is completely correct. Don’t take it for granted, because you also have to work and maybe the two of you will become celebrities, and I will say: “I knew them.” Sometimes that is what God asks from you, and you don’t have to take a step back. The only thing is that simple relationship. So you say: “What are you asking of me now? Are you asking me to go forth? I will go forth. Are you asking me to step back? I will step back. That’s no problem.” Luckily you have friends to help you in this, or else you may always have the suspicion that it’s your idea and not something that is asked of you.

Alessia: These days, my family is in Italy and I have this question: What is my place? Things were really unclear. How do you understand when something is just your idea? For example, I’m studying medieval history, and I’m convinced that it’s something that is asked of me—if not, I wouldn’t study it—but at the same time I want to make sure I’m going where I am asked to go. [….] How do I understand the difference between something good that is asked of me, and something I want to do impulsively—even if it is a noble goal—but which is not asked of me?

Amedeo: First of all, don’t be worried about mistakes. Because if one lives, one makes mistakes. That is the first and most important thing: that we are always embraced in our mistakes. It’s not just pardon, it’s something more. This is our nature: that we make mistakes. This is also a feature of this awareness. If you are aware that you make mistakes, and there is someone in front of you to whom you can say “sorry, let’s start again,” this experience becomes valuable. This is the first thing that makes you understand that something is not just your idea.

Second, it’s reality that helps you to see if you are right or wrong. If you are right, you will be happy; if you are wrong, you will see after a while that you are anxious, sad, unable to sleep, and so on. It may also be that you are sad and you can’t sleep because things are a tragedy. In these months, for example, I always woke up with a pit in my stomach; every morning was like waking up to a nightmare. But after a while I started saying, “Okay, God, this is your day, bring me wherever you want today,” and this was something that opened my day. But this is human; it is not a mistake to wake up that way. I can’t do anything to wake up differently. In fact, I would be stupid if I woke up in another way, excited to work on COVID-19. This would be unrealistic.

Having friends not only helps you to be aware of your mistakes, but it helps you to look at someone who is attractive for you, in the way that he treats others and approaches life. It is not just any friend, but a friend who you perceive from the beginning as necessary for your relationship with God. They may be a priest, a nun, or a friend from university, or even your children. For me, that’s very important. My children are this same presence for me, and there are a lot of things that I will never forget about them. They have drawn a line in my life from which I can never step back, because it will always come back to my mind.

I’ll tell you about my older son, who is now married. Once we were participating in Colletta Alimentare, when we would go to the supermarkets and invite people to buy goods for the less fortunate. That day, my son was quite sad. He said: “you have explained everything to me about why we do this, but I am not convinced.” So he called a friend of ours who is a priest and said: “I am not convinced. Why should I do this?” And the priest said: “The only real reason to do this is that, in what you’re doing, you are seeking a relationship with God. This is the only good reason.” These words became an engine. From that moment, my son started moving all day. He was so happy with what he had heard that, when he finished his shift at the supermarket, he went to see his friends and had this burning discussion with them. He was 16 years old at the time, and so you can imagine discussions at that age can be quite violent. He came home quite late, told me and my wife everything, and then turned to go to his room. But after a few seconds, he stepped back, turned to us and said: “you see, I’m going to my room, and in a few seconds I am about to forget all the good things that I lived today. They are no longer as vivid as a few seconds ago. But I don’t want this in my life, so if you are my friends, you must help me to keep this level of awareness every day.” Sixteen years old, will you ever forget this? So this is friendship.

Adam: One thing that you said to the students was this point about not hiding the fact in your life; showing the beauty that you have met. As a hypothesis I find this very interesting, but what I find is that sometimes I have to make a choice between wanting to be myself and not wanting to impose myself on the other person. And the context is that—and I’m sure it’s not so different in Italy—we live in a very politically correct culture, especially at work. So I want to understand: what does it mean to not hide yourself? What struck me about you was that not only were you certain and happy, but you were free in front of your colleagues to let things be as they are.

Amedeo: “Not to hide” is really distant from imposing anything. I use these words because this is not the main issue. The main issue is what you live; the possibility of fully living this relationship with God. It means waking up in the morning, seeing the sky, and saying “wow, that’s God’s sky for me,” or your family, or your friends, or everything that happens in your life, because it’s really natural that everything is done for you. If you live this, you are really free. And if you are really free, it passes through your eyes, through everything that you do.

Sometimes there were days when I went into patient rooms and I joked with them—even patients who were very ill—not because I was stupid, but because I could see that they wanted that joke; that joke was just coming from a happy heart. It was coming from a heart that could see that that was not the last word. Maybe I occasionally suggested sharing a short prayer together, and maybe in Italy it is a bit easier because there is still somewhat of a Christian culture. But even with my students, we would come in and we would joke with the patients. It emerges in this way, and we can’t do it differently.

So it happens that your colleagues and people around you will say: “Adam, how can you be like that?” At that moment, you cannot hide. That’s the point. If instead you said: “well, it’s my nature,” it would be false; it’s not your nature. I know that this is not my nature. In some way I have to say: “you know why, it’s because of this, and that” and then they are free to say “yes or no.” But they cannot say that they haven’t come to the point of asking you that question. That means that you cannot explain your face, Adam, in front of a particular situation, without thinking that there must be something beyond that, something that you cannot understand.

It happened to me a few years ago with my HIV-infected patients. Most of them know me very well, because it’s a chronic infection and some of them have known me for 15, 20, 25, 30 years. At the beginning some of them would say: “Ah wow, you are this, you are that,” and I would say “thank you.” But that is stupid. Why did I say “thank you?” It’s not “thank you,” as if it were all natural. But this is not natural. I started saying: “You know, you can be the same.” In the first case, you say: “wow, I would like to stay a quarter of an hour with you.” But in the second case, you start saying: “well this is an opportunity for me as well.”

Alessia: Being in CL, you often hear this idea that “things are given” and “everything is a gift.” But for you, I see that it’s real. When I first heard about your testimony for the CLU, I was a bit skeptical because I thought it was just going to be some heroic witness about a doctor living COVID. It was so beautiful instead that it was the exact opposite. I’m really curious to understand how it happened for you that you came to understand that life is a gift. There are moments for me where it’s more evident, but there are days when it seems like nothing is given and I’m just upset about everything.

Amedeo: This is just a mood. Even at the moment when you say “I am angry,” it’s not true. We are very quick to self-flagellate.

It’s really something that came through friends, and looking at friends, and in particular in my job. I could tell you a very long story about my life as a child, when I came to understand that everything was a gift. But when you begin to face difficult things, you may lose this understanding. As a doctor, sometimes it seems that you are moving the world. I can become a bit like a “god” for them; an angel. They would say to me: “you’re an angel.” You could be content with that and say “wow, I am bringing God to my patients.” But when evening arrives, when you go home, you realize that you just have a handful of flies in your hands, because you’re not there to look for yourself. If you were just looking for yourself, you could stop.

I used to say “every patient is a gift for me,” but in the end it wasn’t true. I was really saying: “I was a gift for me.” And this is obvious because you can see that you’re not actually looking at your patients. Before when I would say that everyone is a gift for me, I was using this as a pretext, but in the end I was looking at myself.

But this is something that COVID has helped me with, because one day I was going to the hospital and I wanted to write about my experience, and so I finally wrote to the newspaper. There are steps in your life that you don’t realize you’re taking while you are doing them, but that was one of those steps; realizing that I depend. The difference is that the patient is sent to you by God and you depend on that patient. But you start by being sure that that situation is for you.

In life, you can never stop discovering. You can say one thing with the same words, and then discover five years later that the same words were much deeper than you thought before. One thing I can say is that, before, I had sympathetic patients and others who were really unbearable. But now, even with the unbearable patients—they are still unbearable—there is something in the tenderness of God that embraces them too. So the way I see them is much different, because I am not looking at myself; I am looking at the fact that God embraces them as He embraces me. And I am no better than them. But I am not making a comparison, I am just saying that the problem that this person is posing to me is a cry to God. He does not know it, but it is a cry to God. For me, I can see it like this—maybe it will take years to understand this—but for me, it’s clear now. I can see that this stupid thing that for his eyes is everything in the world, in the end is not just something that he is complaining about, but a cry to God. So I will stay here and look at him with the same tenderness of God, and maybe sooner or later it will reach him. So it makes you free. You can say “this is a very unbearable person” and have to spend half an hour with him, but when the situation changes like this, you would spend half an hour with him.