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Letter from Rome, April 21, 2020: The Romans are getting restless

People are looking to strike the right balance between concern for the threat to public health and safety that the virus poses, and concern for the threat to public health and safety that the lockdown measures pose.

Msgr. Jozef Bart, rector of the Church of the Holy Spirit, and a nun clean a street before Pope Francis' arrival to celebrate Mass at the church near the Vatican in Rome April 19, 2020. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote last. I’m sorry about that. There was Holy Week and then there was Easter – the whole week of the Octave is generally pretty slow around here. Under normal circumstances, I’d write perhaps to tell of the great feasts we had, and of the blessed experience of the Triduum – especially the vigil – but these aren’t normal circumstances.

I can report that I did sing the Regina coeli from my balcony in the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, after watching the live stream of Pope Francis celebrating the Easter vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was quiet as a tomb. None of the neighbors stirred. I went inside and closed the shutters and hid the eggs and went to bed.

It’s been pretty boring around here, truth be told. ‘Na noia mortale, the Romans would say. They have another expression: Mejo avecce cento cani a le coste che ‘na spina ar culo. I won’t translate it verbatim – CWR is family friendly and the Romans are salty – but the gist of it is that mortal danger from ferocious attack is preferable to a minor but persistently nagging discomfort, particularly one afflicting one’s posterior.

“I decide to allow myself to waste time,” wrote Sofia Abasolo for the Catholic Herald late last month, “to allow myself and the kids to be bored, together.” I’ve tried to take her advice, and suppose I have succeeded to some extent. The fact of the matter is, however, I find myself wishing something would break or maybe catch fire – not a big fire, mind – or otherwise go just sideways enough to spice things up a bit.

The moments in which I have those thoughts are fleeting, and my wife and daughter have been godsends.

RJA was at the dining room table, doing English homework (she studies English as a second language – a required course at the elementary level – with often comic result, as it is taught in the British idiom), clad only in a pink dressing gown … er … bathrobe. She sneezed. That’s when Mrs A. and I noticed her. “Maybe some clothes,” said Mrs. A. “Nope,” came RJA’s reply, laconic and deadpan. I don’t believe she looked up from her books.

We laughed for ten minutes.

It’s tough to do this job cooped up, too. Seeing people and talking about what’s doing is not really an optional or an extra in this line of work. Anyone can turn around a statement or write around a press release. In order to have an idea of what’s going on – to know just what the press releases are telling you and why the documents are coming out now – one needs to be in the mix and seeing people and talking to them, mostly about other things and often about anything but work.

Anyway, Romans seem to be getting restless.

The authorities continue to tease the idea of relaxing restrictions on commerce and movement, while citizens continue to debate the merits of this or than plan for “Phase II” as everyone has taken to calling whatever is coming.

The specific concerns here are a little different, but the basic contours of the discussion are familiar: excluding the crazies on both ends – those, who demand everything be reopened yesterday; and, those who think that any talk of how we might begin to inch out of lockdown is utterly irresponsible – people are looking to strike the right balance between concern for the threat to public health and safety that the virus poses, and concern for the threat to public health and safety that the lockdown measures pose.

I wish I could tell you I have some special insight into the business, but I don’t.

My concerns are those of citizens everywhere, while my knowledge and understanding of the situation and its stakes – while significant in certain limited respects – are not helpfully different or greater than those of any other Joe.

In several conversations I’ve had lately, one of the recurring themes has been that we are going to get things wrong – we are going to make mistakes, all of us, and especially our leaders both political and spiritual – and that the consequences of those mistakes can’t help but be dire for some of us, but it is inevitable.

Pope Francis has been really good on this point, actually.

Early on in the crisis, he prayed for our leaders and asked us to pray for them. “Let us keep praying together for the ill, their relatives, for parents with children at home,” he prayed March 12th at the start of his daily Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, “but most of all I would ask that you pray for authorities.” He went on to say that leaders “many times have to decide on measures that the people do not like,” further noting that the unpopular decisions are often the ones taken best in view of the public good.

He noted then that people in leadership positions often “feel lonely, misunderstood,” and he’s not wrong. “Let us pray for our governing leaders,” Pope Francis said on March 12th, “who must make decisions on these measures: let them feel accompanied by the prayers of the people.”

We don’t obey the measures imposed because we like them, or even because we believe they are the best ones possible, but because they are the ones we have in place. Meanwhile, we let our leaders know what we think of their conduct, and we argue with them and with each other, and we pray for ourselves and for our leaders.

That goes for leaders of all stripes, both civil and religious.

There have been loads of essays about “What I’m learning” from the lockdown, and I don’t want this letter to become another one of those. Still, seeing it suddenly become OK not to have the answer has been encouraging. It’s almost as if we’ve slowly begun to awaken to the fact that, major global health crisis or no, we’re in this together, and need to listen and help one another, even and especially when we argue about important stuff.

That said, I really am looking forward to going for a walk – just an aimless amble – through the city, which really is beautiful this time of year.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

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