– Aurelio Porfiri
I think that it is very useful, in these strange days that we are living in, to go back and trace the evolution from a certain moment to where we are now. Because I think that these trips down memory lane are very useful to ascertain the magnitude of the epochal change we all are in.
Around mid-January, I was planning my trip to Hong Kong, where I planned to stay for some time for personal business. In those days, more and more news poured in about the new epidemic that we now call Covid-19. Many more theories came regarding the origin of this epidemic, but the theory that it came from the market in Wuhan, which is also admitted by the Chinese authorities, seems to be the most probable. In order to avoid the spread of the virus in Italy, our government suspended direct flights from Italy to China, including Hong Kong. So I had to put on hold my desire to visit the city and wait a few weeks, until things get resolved, or so I thought.
In February, we began having cases in Italy, imported cases, as two Chinese tourists who were infected stayed in a hotel in Via Cavour, close to the main train station in Rome. Then we have a “patient 0” in north Italy, an Italian who was infected but they did not understand how. The authorities were confident of stopping the epidemic, but indeed they couldn’t. And they were so unsuccessful that now in Italy, at the moment I am writing this article (March 21) there are almost 50,000 infected persons and the number of deaths is higher than those reported by China. The whole country is in quarantine (yes, THE WHOLE COUNTRY!) and more restrictions are coming for the people who need to go out without valid reasons.
Now we are living in a police state (and we accept this because we all want to stop this pandemic). The army will be sent in the streets to stop people going around. As I say, we all understand that this is a necessity, but this is going on since the first week of March and, from what we heard from the government officials, this will probably last for one more month. Please remember that I am in Italy, in Rome. Even if you have never visited Italy or Rome, with the little you know about it, you can imagine what is the biggest source of income: tourism. Hotels, restaurants, transportation, shops, museums…there are hundreds of thousands of families, if not millions, that get their support coming directly or indirectly from the tourism industry. And now? All shut down! Tourism has declined to almost zero. And quite understandably so: who wants to visit a country where there is a pandemic going on and where it is not possible to move? But if Italy is most affected, other European countries are also paying a huge price. So, we go from our normal life, disorganized if you want, to another life. We are living in a sort of alternative dimension, and we don’t know when the end of this tragedy will be. Several of our elderly succumbed to the virus and entire families were shattered.
The Pope, as all the world has seen, visited the church of San Marcello al Corso where there is a famous miraculous crucifix. The photograph of him alone on the usually highly crowded via del Corso is highly symbolic. To me there is also a significant a detail that was not so emphasized: the man on the bicycle on the other side of the street, didn’t even look in the direction of the Holy Father and continued his ride almost oblivious that a few meters from him was one of the most famous personalities in the world. Probably it was not indifference, it was just a moment that the photo captured it this way. But it makes us think how this epochal historical event that we are writing about these days will have an impact on Catholic life.
Do you remember the issue about the closure of the churches in Rome? First, the vicar of the Pope, Card. Angelo De Donatis announced a total shut down. The day after, the Pope himself made a declaration during the homily for his daily Mass saying that we have to be careful in implementing drastic measures. Then the Vicar of the Pope “mitigated” the previous decree leaving parishes open even if all Masses and religious ceremonies are suspended. But what is the point of all this? If I venture outside, the police will stop me, and I don’t think that saying I have to pray the rosary in church will prevent them from imposing a fine on me or worse, I don’t think that Card. De Donatis did not inform the Holy Father when deciding the total shut down. So what happened? From the information I have gathered, what actually happened was that several Bishops and Cardinals on the day of the first decree of the Cardinal Vicar had called him to complain about this measure, and this made the Pope to reconsider the whole thing. Because the problem certainly is not only related to these weeks, but may have an impact later.
If we are honest, we need to recognize that in the last decades the Church has lost a huge number of faithful. There are many reasons, but we cannot at the moment discuss them here. Some prelates are afraid that being far from the liturgy for a significant amount of time may encourage some more people to leave the Church. I was surprised a few days ago, on listening to a conference on YouTube by an American commentator, that affirmed that one of the biggest religious groups in the USA (third or fourth) are…ex Catholics!…
Thomas Tobin, Bishop of Providence (RI) tweeted like this: “I wonder-after the crisis is over and public Masses resume, will people realize how much they need and missed the sacraments and hurry to church again; or will they have grown lax and complacent and stay away for good? I pray for the former; I fear the latter.” I assume a lot of people fear the latter, probably even in the Vatican. Here, we should talk also about Masses in our churches, where there is an evident lack of reverence; some people will not feel they are giving up something supernatural, but just one more meeting… I know, it is sad, it is blunt, but in this moment of great despair for the world we need to be honest to the point of being indelicate.
Giampaolo Crepaldi, Archbishop of Trieste, penned an important document that addressed the issue raised by the current crisis. I want to quote a passage (as translated in lifesitenews) that can give us elements for reflection about this moment and the relationship between Church and state (italic for emphasis is mine): “The common good is of a moral nature and, as we have said above, this crisis should lead to the rediscovery of this dimension, but morality does not live by its own life, for it is incapable in the final analysis of being its own foundation. The problem arises here of the essential relationship that political life has with religion, the one that best guarantees the truth of political life. Political authority weakens the fight against evil, as is also the case with the present epidemic, when it equates Holy Masses with recreational initiatives, thinking that they should be suspended, perhaps even before suspending other forms of gathering which are certainly less important. Even the Church may be mistaken when she does not affirm, for the same authentic and complete common good, the public necessity of Holy Masses and the openness of churches. The Church contributes to the fight against the epidemic through the various forms of assistance, aid and solidarity which she knows how to implement, as she has always done in the past in similar cases. However, it is important to remain very attentive to the religious dimension of its contribution, so that it is not seen as a mere expression of civil society.”
This is why what Pope Francis said is so important when he prayed to the Holy Spirit to give “pastors the pastoral capacity and discernment necessary to take measures that do not leave the faithful people of God alone. May the people of God feel accompanied by pastors and the comfort of the Word of God, the sacraments and prayer, naturally with the common sense and prudence that the situation demands.” In the meantime, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments have given directions for the celebration of Easter and Triduum (no people involved) and the Pope has given a plenary indulgence and absolution for all those suffering from this horrible situation. With the faithful unable to go to confession, the Pope has asked to put in place other ways with which we can present to God our infirmities and obtain mercy.
Now, there is also a mention about responsibility. The people here, through this huge problem, want to know: how was this possible? This is not a question that can remain unanswered for a long time.