VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As draconian restrictions, meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, took effect across Italy, the Catholic Church was faced with an unprecedented dilemma: how to minister to a community of faithful effectively under quarantine and how to keep reaching out to those most in need without spreading contagion.
One priest, whose own bishop has been hospitalized, expressed his struggle this way on his parish website: “We find ourselves shut off and imprisoned when by vocation we are called to be on the road.”
“Lord grant me new ways to console those who mourn … teach me how to be a priest in the time of coronavirus,” wrote Father Enrico Trevisi of Christ the King parish in Cremona — a province near Milan that has seen 66 people die of COVID-19, nearly 1,000 known cases and another 300 suspected cases awaiting results as of March 10.
That struggle became even more challenging when Pope Francis reminded priests their mission is always to go out. He prayed at the beginning of Mass March 10 that priests find the courage to visit the sick and health care workers and bring them strength with the Gospel and the Eucharist.
While it was clearly implied and reiterated that all ministry must respect health guidelines, precautions and government norms in force, the church still had to quickly discover and decide what ministry and charity in the time of coronavirus could look like.
One way the church “went out” with the Gospel was by using online video platforms, streaming services on social media, podcasts, television and radio to broadcast Mass, prayer services and Lenten reflections.
Vatican News started an evening radio program and podcast, “On the frontlines: Living with faith in the time of the coronavirus” that is directly geared to bring hope and consolation to the elderly, the homebound, prisoners and health care professionals.
Bishop Antonio Napolioni of Cremona had been airing “At home with you: A special Lent” in order to be closer to his community in northern Italy’s “red zone” before he was hit with respiratory problems connected with COVID-19.
“Now I will be ‘In the hospital with you,'” he told the local paper March 9, which reported the hospital’s medical staff was finding great comfort and support in the bishop’s positive and helpful outlook.
Five doctors there are working 12-hour shifts and one told the news site, Il Fatto Quotidiano, March 10 that he has lost count of the number of incoming patients, with a new “one every half hour. All with swabs that are positive or suspected.”
People have to respond to the crisis and risks they face, “not with fear, but with solidarity and attention to the common good, to the welfare of those who are poorest and most fragile,” said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the lay Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome.
Christian solidarity and charity are needed more than ever right now, he said in an interview with Vatican News March 10, because the isolation imposed by the nationwide lockdown makes the homeless, the elderly, the ill and the differently-abled even more vulnerable. Forty-five percent of Rome’s population lives alone, he said.
“It is necessary to find new ways to be close to these people while avoiding being infected and infecting them,” which means being smart, creative and driven by love, he said.
For example, volunteers are going to people living on the street, bringing them food and products to help with sanitation and hygiene. And the faithful are being asked to call, write or use video or audio messages to chat with people who are homebound or in assisted-living facilities and to bring them groceries.
Staff at soup kitchens are wearing masks and gloves, and they are serving only a few people at a time in order to follow ordinances against groups of people congregating or being close to one another.
The Vatican is keeping its bathrooms and showers open but letting just a few people in at a time, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, told Vatican News March 10.
Its dormitories are open during the day to reduce crowding and it has replaced its cafeteria-style indoor service near the main train station with sack lunches, delivered directly to people in the area, he said.
They are trying to send the message, “You are not facing this emergency alone, we are here, we will support your needs,” he said.
The Italian bishops’ national Caritas office put out recommendations March 9 asking volunteers also be aware of new needs created by the lockdown, such as families unequipped to have minors at home with schools closed, workers on leave as their place of employment remains closed, as well as prisoners and the many refugees in Italy.
While the increased isolation is bad for those who are already isolated or vulnerable, being required to retreat from the outside world could also be uplifting or spiritually enriching for those who normally live busy or hectic lives.
The lockdown could be lived like a “cloistered” life, dedicated to increased prayer, contemplation and shared communion, Mother Caterina Corona told the Italian news agency ANSA March 8.
“Lent is a time for conversion and (the pandemic) could help us change our habits and improve our way of life,” said the abbess of the Benedictine nuns of St. Anthony in Norcia.
The coronavirus has taken the people of Italy on an unexpected Lenten journey.
As Father Trevisi of Cremona said in his prayer online, “Let us not judge the restrictions, which are an extreme measure to protect the weakest. We suffer in silence not being able to share the struggles and pain of our people.”
It is for all the people the priest can no longer embrace that “we celebrate Mass each day during a Lent that is truly a desert, a place of trial and a place to encounter God.”