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Letter from Rome, March 15, 2020: Things will likely get worse before they get better

We’re all going to make mistakes — our civil and political leaders, as well as our religious leaders, and all of us, too — we’re not going to like the things we’re told to do or not to do, and we won’t ever agree with everything.

Pope Francis prays in front of the Marian icon "Salus Populi Romani" at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome March 15, 2020. The pope prayed as coronavirus deaths in Italy peaked at 368 in a 24-hour period, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,809 out of 24,747 cases. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

I’m not going to sugar coat it for you. I’m not even going to try. It’s tough going here in Rome right now. Romans are banding together, it’s true: practicing civility as a matter of course, and singing their public spirit from their balconies each afternoon at 6pm. We’re only at the beginning of what must be a protracted disruption. Tempers are going to flare, missteps will be made, and patience will grow thin. It’s just the way of things.

I’ve noticed that lots of you at home have been talking about Mass — about what you’re doing, and about what the bishops should do — and that some of you have been very critical of decisions taken in some jurisdictions to close all Masses to the faithful, while others of you have been equally critical of bishops, who have yet to take any decision in these regards.

I’m not there, I’m here.

I have no special insight into anyone’s situation, and only a very partial view of our own in Rome. That said, I can state with confidence that, had the Italian government taken on February 11th, the measures it decided to take starting on March 11th, they would have been more effective, and that the Church here is struggling mightily to figure out how best to respond under the circumstances.

One thing on which everyone here in Rome agrees, is that the suspension of public gatherings — those for religious ceremonies included — is entirely reasonable.

It seems in order for me to share two further thoughts with you, regarding the business with which we are all already faced to some degree, a business that will only become more egregious in the days and weeks and months to come.

First, there is no need to wait for a dispensation from your bishop, in order to reach the decision to stay home. The obligation to attend Mass is a legal one: it exists in law, which does not bind — because it cannot bind — to the impossible. Now, “impossible” may be intended both physically and morally.

The law binds to neither.

Second, consider your duties to yourselves and to your fellows: you could be carrying the disease, and spreading it unawares to all and sundry, with whom you come into contact. This cuts both ways: the fellow in rude health, whom you heartily greet in the parish lot of one Sunday, may be in the ICU the next.

I saw or read an interview with public health expert last week or the week before, who noted — roughly — that the nature of public health emergency management is such, that a successful response inevitably occasions much public discussion of what the fuss was all about. That is the way of things, too. There’s no telling how bad this is going to get. There’s no reason to try and find out.

It is evident that, in any case, that ship has sailed from Rome and from Italy: the mourning families of COVID-19’s 1,809 victims here to date will attest to that, as will the families of the 20,603 persons currently infected. Less than a week ago, fewer than 10,000 people were positive for the virus. The number of infected has nearly doubled in the last four days, while the number of dead has more than doubled over the same period.

Pope Francis today walked the mostly deserted Via del Corso, on his way to pray in the basilica dedicated to Pope St Marcellus, who had a brief pontificate in the early fourth century and was banished by the Emperor Maxentius, who ruled the western empire until Constantine defeated him at Milvian Bridge in 312.

A miraculous Crucifix is kept in the basilica, which the people of Rome carried in procession through the city and eventually to St Peter’s in 1522, calling the people to penance for their sins and imploring the divine mercy to end the terrible plague that was then ravaging the city.

There, Pope Francis prayed.

Pope Francis’s first stop on his afternoon pilgrimage was to St. Mary Major and the icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani, to whom he is intensely and especially devoted.

Under her title, Salus Populi Romani, the Romans have for centuries venerated Our Lady and implored her intercession against plague and pestilence. Pope St. Gregory the Great carried the icon in procession in 593, and Pope Gregory XVI again called on her to cease a cholera epidemic in 1837. Vatican News has a bit of the history.

When we read about it in the books, it sounds awfully neat.

The fact is, history is always a mess in the making, and this time is no different. We’re all going to make mistakes — our civil and political leaders, as well as our religious leaders, and all of us, too — we’re not going to like the things we’re told to do or not to do, and we won’t ever agree with everything. Sometimes, we’ll argue with and against ourselves as well as our neighbors. The important thing is to remember that’s what we are: neighbors — and if we’re Christians in any real sense, we’ll remember that being a neighbor sometimes means getting into a ditch and sometimes means walking away and picking up the tab.

Please pray for us here, and know that we’re praying for you, wherever you are.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 212 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. We read that the law does not “bind” to the impossible.

    The other good news is that Germania’s impossible and “binding synodal path” is now off the front page and displaced into the dustbin, or the “ditch” of history.

  2. Why should anything get worse? The whole world should simply follow the lead of Francis and be submissive to the Chinese government. The perfectly honest leaders of that perfect society will tell us all what to do and protect the entire human race from all harm, unlike dirty capitalists who research things like medical cures and produce medical and sanitizing supplies and equipment.

  3. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is not a physical plague that is currently afflicting mankind the world over.

    And while it’s interesting to cite the number of dead due to this flu, let’s not forget that hundreds of millions of human lives have been rendered dead by abortion which is a pandemic this world never witnessed until now.

  4. I pray for Rome and the rest of Italy. We, Catholics in Singapore, are not able to attend Masses and devotions since February 14. Though we miss very much the receiving of the host sacramentally, we know that to prevent widespread contagion, we have to close our 32 churches. However, we are blessed to have an archbishop with the foresight to telecast online Masses every day and even Children’s Mass. We have spiritual communion. We look with anticipation for the covid-19 to end.

  5. Trusting in our Lady – thank you Pope Francis for ur leadership and for all the prayers – a concerned native of California, I was scared as to how these next weeks will pan out , but I heard our lady’s voice say “ Do not be scared,” so I will trust that Gods love will see me through . Will see us through

  6. The number of WuFlu cases in our state have really blown up. Folks here don’t take kindly to being instructed not to party or congregate. There’s a correlation apparently. We don’t have a huge population but overnight we’re now in the top 3-4 states for infection numbers.
    It’s mostly the older folks & those already challenged with chronic health issues that really are at risk. This doesn’t seem to impact young people or children the same way thankfully. It helps to remember that & keeps things in perspective. Of course, those older folks have a life too & our behaviors can endanger them.
    And just FYI: don’t be over complacent. There’s a 45 year old attorney in the New Orleans area on a ventilator with double pneumonia from the virus. He’d previously been in good health with no chronic issues.
    If we can all get a grip-stop hoarding, be prudent, kind & considerate of the more vulnerable among us we’ll get through this & hopefully learn something from it.

  7. Yes, we must pray for all the affected and those who died as a result of COVID-19, and even more pray to FULLY TRUST and REST in God in the midst of all the other never ending, constant threats to our very fragile life, like home/car accidents, slipping on a banana peel, bathtub slips with similar or worse results, choking on food, serious side effects of correctly prescribed medicine, reckless and/or texting drivers, bad weather, etc., etc.

    Yes, like a friend of mine says, life itself is an invincible terminal “disease” but Jesus calls us to LIVE life to the fullest in the middle of walking on a razor’s edge every single second, even when asleep. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”, (John 10:10). To live to the FULL, we must be FAITHFUL!! That’s where peace, rest, confidence, protection and REAL security ARE. In Faithfulness!! Outside of it, there’s just fear, panic, insecurity, desperation and hopelessness. That’s exactly where we are being PUSHED INTO through panic, etc. so we lose our True Faith or else risk looking like “hard-hearted and reckless” if we don’t just go along with everyone else in the panicked, manipulated crowd.

    The article here says Pope Francis is doing what looks like very Catholic things with traditional practices and symbols in response to the crisis. Contrast that so sharply with the Pachamama Vatican Incident under Pope Francis’ watch and approval. Lack of True FAITHFULNESS opens wide the doors to a very deep, dark FEAR. Why did Saint John Paul II SO constantly told us, like Jesus did, NOT to fear? Because it is a very dark force that steals and destroys True Faith and Faithfulness, and corrupts and enslaves the heart and the mind. “He too shared in their humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”, (Hebrews 2:14-15).

    Which “virus” should we fear MOST? “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”, (Matthew 10:28). We should fear infinitely more the viruses of the soul!! Maybe we should start to call COVID-19 the Split-Heart-Faith-Destroying-By-Panic Virus!

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