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.