“I received a message from a priest,” Pope Francis told the miniscule congregation in the chapel of the Domus Santae Marthae gathered for Mass on Friday morning, “a fellow from Bergamo or thereabouts, who asks us to pray for the doctors of Bergamo, Treviglio, Brescia, Cremona”, all towns and cities in the stricken northern Italian region of Lombardy, “who are pushed to the limit, and are giving their very lives to help the sick — to save the lives of others”.
Pope Francis also said: “Let us also pray for the authorities, because it is not easy for them to manage this moment, and often they suffer incomprehension.
“Both medical caregivers and the authorities,” he continued, “are pillars, who help us go forward, and defend us in this crisis.”
2,629 doctors and nurses are infected, according to the count released mid-week, while no fewer than 14 doctors treating patients taken ill with COVID-19 have themselves died of the virus.
“Let us pray for them,” Pope Francis said, and then he read the antiphon: “There is none among the gods like unto thee, O Lord, for thou art great and dost wonderful things” (Ps 85:8,10).
Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, announced mid-week that an extension of the restrictions on commerce and movement is a foregone conclusion. He said there’s no telling how long they’ll need to be in place, or whether the government will make them even more stringent than they are, but there is talk of that, too.
On Thursday, the death toll from coronavirus in Italy surpassed China’s official tally. What has become clear over the past few days, is that Italy must be prepared for protracted interruption of commerce and movement: in a word, of normal life. This is going to be a slog.
News on Thursday was that some 300 doctors would be preparing to relieve the exhausted medical professionals who have been working around the clock, mostly in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, where the virus hit first and so far hardest. This is a volunteer operation, organised with government help.
Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational, Evangelical Christian disaster relief organisation, has begun setting up a field hospital in Cremona, a small city in the Milan metropolitan area. The outfit has airlifted materials for a 68-bed respiratory unit, deployment of which they’re coordinating with the Italian air force and civil protection.
Outside of Lombardy, people are mostly waiting for what is coming.
No one is allowed into or out of Fondi — a small town in Latina province, adjacent to Rome — after more than 40 people who took part in a carnival party at a senior citizens’ centre tested positive. The party was on February 25.
Meanwhile, folk are rediscovering the sense and sensibility of neighbourhood.
We live a couple of hundred yards from a major thoroughfare, and only 50 or so from a stretch of railroad on which freight trains run, day and night. We are used to a little noise — a hum in the background, occasionally punctuated by a screech or a bang or a klaxon’s sound.
We used to be in the centre of town, a few floors above a major intersection. That was loud, day and night. When we moved to where we are now, a few years back, the evening quiet was disconcerting. It took some getting used to.
These days, the quiet in the evenings would be almost bucolic, were it not so eerie.
In our building, one neighbour created a group chat, so we can let each other know who’s heading to the shops. The children are planning to “surprise” a girl in the building next door, with a birthday serenade to be sung from our courtyard beneath her balcony.
The old, retired contadino in the building across the street still takes his breakfast of a banana and box wine from the boot of his car, his mask loose around his neck. I still see him when I take the rubbish out, and we still greet each other with smiles and waves. He gave me a bushel of artichoke from his garden last summer.
Rome’s Cardinal Vicar, Angelo De Donatis, wrote to the clergy of the diocese this week, noting the “enormous generosity of many lay persons, especially the volunteers who are making sure the poor do no want for food, shelter, human warmth”. He also praised the dedication of priests and deacons, who are daily discovering and implementing creative new ways of keeping in touch with their faithful and reaching out to those most in need of consolation both spiritual and corporal.
Cardinal De Donatis had a special word of grateful praise “for chaplains in healthcare ministry, who are at risk of contagion, and for you prison chaplains”, likewise exposed to elevated risk but undeterred, not even by news that at least 13 priests in Lombardy have already succumbed to the disease caused by coronavirus.
On Thursday morning, Pope Francis prayed for those in prison and offered his daily Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae for their intention.
In a brief interview with La Stampa published on Friday morning, Pope Francis said: “We will have to look even more to our roots: to grandparents, to the elderly, building a true fraternity among us, remembering this difficult experience through which we will have lived all together, [and] so to go on with hope, which never disappoints.”
In order to come through this crisis, we must allow it, “[t]o remind us once and for all that humanity is one community — and of how universal fraternity is important, decisive.” Pope Francis said, “Roots, memory, brotherhood and hope,” will be “the key words to start anew.”
When this is over, Pope Francis said, “We have to think that it will be a bit like a period just after a war: there will no longer be ‘the other’, but there will be a ‘we’ — because we can only get out of this situation together.”
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