“Let us unite ourselves in these days with the sick, [and] with families suffering in the midst of this pandemic,” Pope Francis prayed at the start of daily Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae on the morning of Friday, March 13th, the seventh anniversary of his election to the See of Peter.
The anniversary falls this year in the midst of a global outbreak of a deadly viral disease, COVID-19, which has hit Italy with great force and led the government to put in place severe restrictions of civil liberties throughout the country.
The latest figures show the number of people declared free of the disease after contracting the virus rose by 213 between Wednesday and Thursday, from 1,045 to 1,258. The figures nevertheless remained a cause of grave concern to Italian authorities: 2,249 new cases of Coronavirus infection nationwide, and 189 more deaths.
Coronavirus has a long incubation period, and often manifests in carriers not at all, or only lightly. This makes the spread of the virus difficult to contain. When the virus does present, it can lead to severe respiratory insufficiency, requiring hospitalization. Coronavirus appears to attack the elderly and infirm with particular vehemence
In Italy, the number of severe cases has so far outstripped available medical services’ ability to care for patients. While those responsible for healthcare infrastructure race to close the gap, authorities have instituted measures they hope will slow the spread of the disease. Pope Francis has prayed for the stricken, for caregivers, and for leaders.
“I would like, today, to pray as well for pastors,” Pope Francis said on Friday morning, “who must accompany the People of God in this crisis: that the Lord give them the strength and the wherewithal to choose the best means for helping.
“Drastic measures,” Francis went on to say, “are not always good.”
The Pope asked the Holy Spirit to give pastors the capacity — the “pastoral discernment” in his precise words — “in order that they adopt measures that do not leave God’s holy and faithful people without assistance.” Francis went on to specify: “Let the people of God feel themselves accompanied by their pastors: by the comfort of the Word of God, the Sacraments, and of prayer.”
On Tuesday of this week, Pope Francis exhorted priests to fearless solicitude for the spiritual health and safety of the faithful, especially the sick.
A statement from the press office in response to journalists’ queries on Tuesday explained that the Pope had intended for all priests to exercise their duties of care “in keeping with the sanitary measures established by the Italian authorities.” At present, those measures allow people to be about town for work, and — as previously noted — it’s hard to argue that bringing people the Sacraments isn’t in a priest’s job description, even and especially when the people are sick or confined.
Best practices are still developing, but Romans usually find a way.
Pope Francis’s prayer on Friday came only hours after the Diocese of Rome announced the closure of all churches in the city, and as the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI) announced they were considering a similar measure throughout the country, to help halt the spread of Coronavirus.
Roman parish titles, chapels, oratories, and shrines are all shuttered. Rome’s Cardinal Vicar, Angelo De Donatis, made the decision on Thursday. Earlier in the week, he suspended public Masses and other community liturgies. When Cardinal De Donatis took that step, he left churches open for private prayer and devotion. Now, they are closed even for that.
“Faith, hope, and charity,” wrote the Italian bishops wrote on Thursday, are a threefold key with which they say they “intend to face this season,” noting the responsibilities of individuals and associations alike. “Of each,” they said, “the greatest attentiveness is required, for anyone’s carelessness in observing the health measures could damage others.”
In their Thursday statement, the CEI said, “The closure of churches [nationwide] could be an expression of this responsibility,” which each person bears singly and all have together. “This, not because the State imposes it on us, but out of a sense of belonging to the human family,” which the CEI described as in this moment, “exposed [sic] to a virus of which we know not yet either the nature or the propagation.”
The Italian bishops may not be expert virologists, but the Italian health ministry, along with the World Health Organisation, European agencies, and the US Centers for Disease Control, seem fairly certain on the points: it is novel coronavirus, which is present in saliva and spreads through contact.
That is why the government has ordered all shops closed — food stores and chemists excepted, along with newsagents and tobacconists — and prohibited all unnecessary circulation.
People who need to go to and from work may be about, as may be those who need to purchase food or medicine, or make essential appointments. Deliveries are being made. Public transport and other essential services remain open. Several telecommunications companies have reduced rates or waved limits on use during the emergency, while news media have dropped paywalls at least on their stories offering crisis-related coverage.
The Vatican, meanwhile, has decided for the time being to stay open for business.
“It has been decided,” read a communiqué sent from the press office of the Holy See to journalists shortly before 1pm Rome on Thursday, “that the dicasteries and entities of the Holy See and the Vatican City State shall remain open in order to ensure essential services to the Universal Church, in coordination with the Secretariat of State, applying at the same time all the sanitary norms and labour-flexibility mechanisms established and issued in days past.”
At press time, the Holy See press office had not responded to follow-up queries from the Catholic Herald regarding whether and to what extent remote working protocols were being implemented across curial and other Vatican offices and outfits.
The Herald also asked what “essential” means for the purposes of the curial dispositions, as well as what steps the press office was taking to ensure safety of staff and journalists, compliance with Holy See and Italian government restrictions, and continuity of work. Sent late in the afternoon on Thursday, those queries likewise had no reply by press time Friday.
Rebel with a cause
One office in the Vatican that will be closed from Saturday is that of the papal almoner. A note from the almoner’s office on Thursday specified that anyone seeking a parchment attestation of a papal blessing — for which the almoner is responsible — could order it online (www.elemosineria.va) and explained that correspondents could leave their letters in the almoner’s box at St Anne’s Gate.
Cardinal Konrad Krajewski who heads the office responsible for the Pope’s charitable activities in the city, even left his personal cell phone number. “[F]or particular or urgent cases,” among the needy of the city, read the communiqué.
Cardinal Krajewski was busy in the night between Thursday and Friday: with the help of volunteers, he distributed food to the homeless.
On Friday, Crux reported that Cardinal Krajewski had opened the doors to his titular church of Santa Maria Immacolata on the Esquiline Hill between Piazza Vittorio and the cathedral basilica of St John Lateran, in defiance of the Cardinal Vicar’s order to shutter churches.
“It is the act of disobedience, yes, I myself put the Blessed Sacrament out and opened my church,” Cardinal Krajewski told Crux on Friday. He also told Crux he would keep his church open, and the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration, all day Friday and during regular hours on Saturday.
“It did not happen under Fascism, it did not happen under the Russian or Soviet rule in Poland — the churches were not closed,” he said. “This is an act that should bring courage to other priests,” he added.
The mood about town
This reporter was first in line at the Tris supermarket at Arco di Travertino on Thursday morning.
I arrived at 6:54 am for an 8 am opening, not entirely by design. The places I wanted to visit first – neighbourhood chapel, parish church, fruit stand — were not open yet. As of today, only the fruit stand will be. “Grocery stores are not more important than churches,” one Vatican official indiscreetly quipped, world-in-a-nutshell. Anyway, by the time the supermarket’s doors opened, the line stretched deep into the parking lot.
People were waiting patiently, evenly spaced at the recommended safe distance from one another, and in good spirits.
I’ve lived in Rome for nearly twenty-three years: more than half my life. I love this city and her people, who are not unlike the people of New York, the city in which I was born. Like New Yorkers, Romans can be as quick to help a total stranger just because the stranger happens to be in need, as they are to offer a four-letter salute.
said, if anyone had told me even a few weeks ago, that he would see Romans waiting patiently in any line and practicing cheerful civility as a matter of course, I’d have told them they’d sooner succeed in selling me a bridge in Brooklyn. What I’ve seen, though, I’ve seen with my own eyes.
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