By G9ija

David Sassoli, an Italian journalist who worked his way up in politics while defending the downtrodden and oppressed to become president of the European Union’s parliament, has died in an Italian hospital.

He died Tuesday at 65.

European Council President Charles Michel called Sassoli a “sincere and passionate European. We already miss his human warmth, his generosity, his friendliness and his smile.”

Sassoli, a socialist, had been hospitalized since Dec. 26 because of abnormal functioning of his immune system, his spokesman Roberto Cuillo said.

Sassoli will be buried Friday at Rome’s Santa Maria degli Angeli, the church where state funerals are held.

Sassoli had been struggling for months with poor health after he suffered pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria in September.

His health steadily declined afterwards and he was forced to miss several important legislative meetings.

Yet, as much as possible, he stayed on the job, where his vigour and easy smile had always been a trademark. He was at his strongest when he took up the cause of migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean or dissidents such as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is taking on the Kremlin from a jail cell.

“Everyone loved his smile and his kindness, yet he knew how to fight for what he believed in,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, reminiscing how Sassoli had travelled to Germany to see the infamous Berlin Wall come down well over three decades ago.

European unity was his benchmark, just as much as justice among all Europeans was.

“Our union has lost at the same time an Italian patriot, a great European and a tireless humanist,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.

Over the past few months, he improved enough to preside over a European Parliament session in December to give the EU’s main human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, to Navalny’s daughter.

High in symbolism, it showed him at his best. A few weeks later, his wishes for the new year showed him as an optimist with great expectations.

“We can be that hope when we don’t ignore those in need. When we don’t build walls on our borders. When we fight all forms of injustice. Here’s to us, here’s to hope,” he said in the address.

He is survived by his wife, Alessandra Vittorini, and his children, Livia and Giulio.

Flags flew half-staff and the European Parliament opened a condolences register. The European Commission will hold a minute of silence when it meets today.

Pope Francis, who received Sassoli in an audience last year, sent an unusually heartfelt telegram of condolences to Sassoli’s wife, paying tribute to him as an “animated believer of hope and charity … who, peacefully and respectfully, worked for the common good with a generous commitment.”

Sassoli was first elected to the European Parliament in 2009. He won another term in 2014 and served as its vice president.

He started as a newspaper journalist before entering broadcasting as a high-profile presenter in Italy. It was a stepping stone for his political career.

He had considered running for the second part of the five-year term which starts next week but decided not to run for reelection when lawmakers choose their new president in Strasbourg, France.

Roberta Metsola, the Christian Democrat who was set to take over from Sassoli next week, said: “I am heartbroken. Europe has lost a leader, I have a lost a friend, democracy has lost a champion.” She said Sassoli “dedicated his life to making the world a better, fairer place.”