Priests who are ministering "on the front lines" in parishes, prisons and hospitals should be considered "at-risk" and receive priority in COVID-19 vaccination programs, said the head of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy.

Ongoing cooperation is needed between government and church leaders "aimed at enabling clergy -- at least those 'in the care of souls' -- to exercise their ministry, something that could be done today by facilitating vaccine administration," said Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.

In an interview with the Italian Catholic agency SIR May 4, the cardinal recalled the 269 diocesan priests in Italy who died of COVID-19 during just the first year of the pandemic.

Many priests "succumbed to the virus while generously devoting themselves to ensuring that the people of God felt the closeness of their shepherds and that they received the comfort of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word of God," he said.

When asked whether it was time to recognize the important "social service" offered by priests and, therefore, ensure their access to vaccines given their higher risk of exposure to the virus, the cardinal said, "this issue should receive necessary consideration on the part of the relevant civil and ecclesiastical authorities."

"My personal opinion, in any case, is that a priest who is faithful to his vocation and mission, and who therefore devotes himself to carrying out his ministry in parishes, prisons, hospitals, etc., should be treated as part of an 'at-risk category' because he is providing a 'socially useful' service," he said.

Cardinal Stella said he heard recently from an archbishop in Latin America who told him that when the pandemic broke out, the archbishop summoned back all the chaplains who were working in the hospitals because so many of them were older priests.

"In response, other younger priests volunteered to serve at hospitals, and obtained permission from the civil authorities to do so, along with appropriate (protective) garments to minister in complete safety," and, as a result, no one in that archdiocese died "without receiving the sacraments or was hospitalized without also receiving spiritual assistance," the cardinal recalled the unidentified archbishop as saying.

"I see this as a successful example of cooperation between civil and church authorities" in which the aim is to find ways to help the clergy be able to carry out their ministry, which now could be assisted by facilitating their access to vaccines, he added.

Nonetheless, he said, the church continues to witness acts of courage as "shown by bishops, priests and lay faithful who put aside their personal hardships in order to reach out to others."

Many made use of "phone and online ministry," and "special recognition should be given to the generous efforts of young people and adults who offered their help to their diocesan Caritas centers to ensure uninterrupted assistance to the poor," he added.

"I can safely say that the church, representing the people of God as a whole, has had the courage not to let herself be overwhelmed by the virus, which has also put her to the test," Cardinal Stella said.

"The church," he said, "has had the courage to dare new initiatives, more or less successful, to be close to and help the neediest and to comfort the distraught -- the courage to bring a word of hope and courage to the whole world."