“They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t not know where they have laid him.” Such were the words, as recorded in the Gospel of John, of Mary Magdalene when she ran up to Simon Peter and John after she had gone to venerate the body of Jesus and found the tomb empty, not knowing that He had risen from the dead. Such was the feeling of many of us priests and faithful when the Archbishop of Florence, Giuseppe Cardinal Betori, in compliance with the Coronavirus Decree issued by the Italian government on March 8, emailed every priest and religious that Sunday morning saying that all public Masses, including funerals, would be suspended until April 3.
The churches remain open for the faithful to pray in, but it is not clear why worship—specifically the celebration of the Mass—is forbidden if celebrated prudently: prior to the decree, people were asked to sit in the pews at least three feet from each other. The irony, if not the contradiction, is that Masses can be celebrated behind closed doors in churches, monasteries, and convents, but the faithful cannot attend; if they ask to receive Holy Communion, however, they cannot be denied. If that is the case, why not celebrate Mass? Perhaps it is because the decision-makers do not share the understanding of the particular purpose of the Mass. As the ancient martyrs used to say, Sine Dominica non possumus. Without Sunday—that is, the Eucharist—we cannot live.
I’m an American priest incardinated in the Archdiocese of Florence. I can attest that this has taken the very life out of the faithful, to say nothing of the discouragement felt by many of us priests. Masses have never been suspended in the history of the Italian Peninsula—yet another first we may rather not have lived to see.
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The Church is not an underground sect in Italy, as was the case in Eastern Europe under the Soviet occupation, or as it still is in communist China. After all, the pope effectively lives in this country. This touches upon a most serious (and now delicate) relationship between the State and the Church—both of which, in its own order, is independent and sovereign. The former, especially during times of emergency and with prudence, can and should cooperate with the latter for the sake of the faithful. Instead, they have taken the Lord away from us.
Masses have never been suspended in the history of the Italian Peninsula, and the Church has always been a point of reference even for non-Catholics, as it was under the German occupation during World War II.
The coronavirus highlights a crisis that exists among people who are in need of a bond and meaning. The Italian dioceses have put out multiple videos inviting families to pray. Yet even Andrea Riccardi, an Italian historian and left-wing politician, said: “What family? In Milan alone 45.56% of the people live by themselves; 44% in Rome: the elderly who live alone in Rome number about 250,000. So many do feel unprotected in the face of an uncertain future, including fake news, conspiracy theories, ‘magical’ explanations or divine condemnations. Fear grows in solitude. Science alone cannot provide comfort.” The message that most hear in Florence, and I imagine the rest of the country as well, is that we do not believe that God can relieve us of this pandemic. At best He can help us get through it. But what comfort can be found when participation at the Sacrifice of the Mass has been forbidden?
Now the entire country is in lock-down. The police and military are stopping people from leaving or entering cities and townships without proper authorization. All restaurants and stores (except supermarkets) are closed, and there are long lines to get inside the grocers’ for food. All schools and universities will be closed until April 3, thereby coercing the last of the American campuses in this country to send their students back to the United States, which has now also banned travel from the European Union. The fact that ordinary Catholics cannot find comfort at Mass seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
During his homily on March 10, the Holy Father said: “We also pray to the Lord for our priests, that they have the courage to go out and go to the sick, bringing the strength of the Word of God and the Eucharist and accompanying the health workers and volunteers in this work they are doing.” In a fabric of fragile relationships, cultivating faith and motivation should not be a secondary concern. It must be primary and decisive. This is what St. Charles Borromeo did as Archbishop of Milan during the famine and plague outbreak of 1576–1577 in personally attending the poor and sick while the governor and most of the nobility of Milan fled. He never contracted the plague and credited his generally healthy nature to a regular regimen of fasting and prayer. It is up to our hierarchy to emulate this if priests are collectively to find any encouragement to bring Christ to the faithful during this dark and most unusual moment.
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