Friday the 13th marked the seventh anniversary of the election of Pope Francis.
But as he began his eighth year as Bishop of Rome, the Catholic faithful of his diocese did not gather for Mass or congregate to pray for him. At least not in any of the churches and shrines of the city. They had all been shuttered the previous day by the pope’s vicar for the diocese, Angelo Cardinal De Donatis.
Pope Francis approved the decision as a way to conform to the drastic measures the Italian government has taken to stop the spread of Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease has already killed more than a thousand people in Italy over the past few weeks.
But the pope obviously changed his mind.
Churches once closed, what can a pope do?
“Drastic measures are not always good,” he said at the beginning of a livestreamed Mass early on that Friday morning.
And a few hours later Cardinal De Donatis ordered the re-opening of the churches. He said he did so after reassessing the situation with the pope.
In unscripted remarks at Mass, Francis prayed for those who are ill, as well as “pastors who need to accompany the people of God during this crisis.”
He also prayed that priests might figure out “the best ways to help” their people, obviously in conformity with the government’s anti-coronavirus measures, so that “the holy, faithful people of God” are not abandoned and will “feel accompanied by their pastors.”
Cardinal De Donatis’ new decree is aimed mainly at keeping parish churches open to the faithful, not the museum-like churches in the historic centre of Rome that are largely tourist sites.
All of Italy in lockdown
That makes sense, since there are few if any tourists in the Eternal City right now. Like the rest of Italy, everything and all of us are in total lockdown. There are only rare exceptions.
Restaurants, cafés, pubs and wine bars: closed. Boutiques, clothing stores, home appliance centres and malls: closed. Beauty salons, barber shops, gyms, cinemas, theatres, sports venues… The list goes on and on. Almost everything is closed.
Among the few places that can remain open are grocery stores, pharmacies and, oddly enough, tobacconists—ostensibly to allow people to pay their utilities and other bills.
But even if these shops are still selling cigarettes, hardly anyone here is making a fuss. Who would begrudge smokers their pleasurable vice at a time when nerves are on edge and we’re all living, more or less, under house arrest?
This is no stroll in the park
The latest decree from the Italian government prohibits people from leaving their homes except to buy food or medicines, go to work or to the doctor. If you have a dog, you can take it out to do its business. And if you are feeling a little stir crazy, it is permissible to go for a walk or a jog—as long as you keep a safe distance from others.
But you better have downloaded and filled out the special self-declaration form available on the Internet to justify why you are out. Police can stop you and ask to see that piece of paper at any time and for any reason. If you are not out for a valid reason of necessity, you could be fined and even jailed.
All these measures are meant to send a strong message: the Italian authorities are deadly serious about combating Covid-19 and they will not tolerate any frivolousness from anybody.
Amazingly, this draconian action seems to have tamed that stereotypical Italian trait of being undisciplined and “creative” when it comes to following rules and regulations. The vast majority of people in the country are actually toeing the line with regards to the anti-coronavirus measures. And they say they even agree with the restrictions.
Not everyone’s a happy camper
But not everyone has willingly signed up to this “forced home confinement.” Some of us were really annoyed, and even angered, when the lockdown was first announced. It seemed exaggerated and over the top.
And really inconvenient.
My primary mental health care provider—the gym!—was closed, and it won’t re-open for at least another few weeks. And a trip to Budapest had to be scrapped after Alitalia cancelled the flight two days prior to my departure.
The first couple days of lockdown were horrible.
Most of us in Rome live in large apartment buildings that contain numerous small to modest-size flats. Some of these homes have no terrace or balcony. And for people with children the lockdown can be a challenge.
It’s certainly a challenge for us who have no kids!
Those annoying neighbours
Italians are very social creatures. Because of their living situation, often in an inter-generational family setting, they tend to be out of their homes. A lot. That option has been significantly curtailed.
And it is creating some real annoyances for residents.
Most of the older buildings here are designed around quads or inner courtyards. Open windows can become megaphones for every domestic squabble, a child’s temper tantrum and the cacophony of people blaring music and a variety of television programmes all at once. Stairwells and hallways reverberate with noise of cooped-up kids running and screaming.
There is no way in hell that I am going to survive this, I thought to myself on Day Three of the lockdown. But after I calmed down and sat for a while, I realised that this could be an opportunity.
More than anything, it could be a spiritual opportunity if I were able to accept it and manage it the right way.
This is the season of Lent, after all. It is a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It’s a time to examine our life of faith and prepare for Easter.
An unforeseen Lenten penance
When Ash Wednesday rolls around we usually ask ourselves, “What am I going to give up for Lent?” Then we find something we really enjoy and choose to deprive ourselves of it. This becomes our self-imposed 40-day “penance.”
We then work and pray to keep this Lenten promise, sometimes failing to do so. But then we buckle down and become observant once more. And therein, it seems to me, is the problem. We choose the penance. We make the sacrifice. We fall. And we resolve once more… It is, in a sense, all about us. We, we, we… all the way home!
It is a penance of our own choosing; a cross of our own design.
These past several days I’ve realised once again that it is much more difficult to carry out a penance or bear a cross that has been unexpectedly thrust upon us.
It may sound irreverent or grandiose to some, but Covid-19 and the really drastic measures we’ve been asked to take in order to stop its spread is the penance I would have never chosen.
Catholics cannot go to Mass
One of those measures is to avoid gathering in crowds. That means most of us here in Italy will have no opportunity to go to Mass, probably not until… Passion Sunday? Perhaps. But it is not certain.
“We have begun an interminable nighttime vigil. It is the Holy Saturday of our faith, the day par excellence of no liturgy, a heavy time of suffering, disorientation, of waiting and hopefulness, that stretches from the sorrow of the cross to the joy of Easter,” writes Gianfranco Brunelli, editor of Il Regno, one of Italy’s most important Catholic periodicals.
“It is the day of God’s silence,” he says.
“The Church must prepare Easter, because it’s possible that we will not even be able to celebrate the Paschal liturgy, the central mystery of our faith: the body and blood of Christ poured out for us and for all,” Brunelli continues.
But how do we prepare if we cannot gather for liturgy? If we cannot go to Mass?
“In this time, more than ever, our homes are domestic Churches,” noted Cardinal De Donatis.
In fact, our in-house “incarceration” gives us Catholics the opportunity to spend, at least the same amount of time spent on Sunday in church, praying over the daily Mass readings and really meditating and “chewing on” the Word of God.
Regrettably, we cannot receive the Eucharist. And that is disturbing and a great sacrifice for many, many people.
But as Brunelli writes, “It is the tabernacle of our hearts and our homes that are now being opened. Christ stands at the door.”
Perhaps our experience of facing the Covid-19 coronavirus—whether by following the drastic preventative measures or dealing with being infected—will help us open that door.
In any case, we have not chosen this penance. It has chosen us.