ROME – When U.S. President Joe Biden took office last week, he did so with the goal of healing and uniting a nation lacerated by political, social and racial tensions, and which is still reeling from the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Yet with the Italian government in disarray and social pressures increasing as the pandemic forces more and more people into the growing class of the “new poor,” the United States isn’t the only one setting out on a path to heal.

At the start of the Italian bishops’ winter assembly, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, who serves as president for the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), outlined his vision for reconciliation amid what he said were numerous “fractures” putting strain on the country.

Bassetti, who survived a battle with COVID-19 that left him in the hospital for two weeks in the autumn, said in his opening address that “our task as pastors today is configured above all as a work of reconciliation.”

In first place, this reconciliation must happen at a fraternal level, “assuming the role of collaboration and solidarity. Then political, re-sewing the social fabric lacerated by social and economic hardships. And again, with science, in the sense of a responsible acquisition of achievements as a real contribution to the well-being of all,” he said.

Bassetti then recalled Pope Francis’s speech to members of the Roman Curia in December, during which he spoke about the need to stop living in conflict, and instead be open to a journey of conversion in which crisis is necessary, but conflict is “only a waste of energy and an opportunity for evil.”

He also recalled a speech the pope gave to CEI’s V National Ecclesial Convention in Florence in 2015, during which the pope voiced his desire for a Church capable of meeting modern challenges without getting defensive, and which is close to the poor and forgotten.

In this sense, pointed “with gratitude and recognition” to the special year of reflection on pope’s 2016 exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which opens March 19, and the Year for St. Joseph, which opened Dec. 8.

Pointing to the importance of community in the life of the Church, Bassetti said a deeper understanding of community itself “can undoubtably increase the grace of unity lived in charity throughout our Church and make it credible in the evangelical announcement it is called to bring.”

“The Church, it should be remembered, is not from this or that side. What is important to us is the good of every person and of each one together with others; what is most important to us is the lives of other people, what we support is our country,” he said, and voiced concern over Italy’s current political upheaval.

On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned after barely surviving a vote of no confidence last week due to a dispute over COVID-19 recovery plans instigated by Matteo Renzi – who served as prime minister from 2014–16 – earlier this month.

With parties divided over coronavirus spending – Conte had refrained from fully using EU emergency funds on grounds that since they are loans it would make Italy’s debt repayment obligations unsustainable, whereas Renzi believes the country could use the help – it is uncertain yet whether Italian President Sergio Mattarella will ask Conte to form a stronger government, whether someone else will step in as prime minister, or whether snap elections will be called.

In his speech, Bassetti voiced hope that the political class, regardless of the outcome of the current turmoil, will collaborate “in the service of citizens, men and women who every day, throughout Italy, work in industrious silence and that a solution will be reached that takes into account the many critical issues” at stake.

It is the task of pastors, in particular, he said, to be the voice of those who are fragile and vulnerable, “so that no one is left alone.”

Part of rebuilding the country after the pandemic means working for the social inclusion of the poor and requires the ability to have a true dialogue and foster social friendship, he said, telling his fellow bishops that the task of reconciliation must be pursued at all levels of the current crisis.

Pointing to the divergent opinions that have emerged amid the “sanitary fracture” in Italian society, Bassetti cautioned that amid “the dizzying noise, amplified by the various media, one risks losing one’s bearings.”

He stressed the importance of discernment, saying believers must exercise both the duty to inform themselves about what is happening, with careful attention paid to distinguishing “a well-founded scientific research and an opinion resulting from sharing on social networks,” and the duty to care for others.

“Everything is connected, and the behavior of the individual affects the good of the community,” he said, adding, “The Christian and civil responsibility of protecting oneself is intricately united to responsibility toward others.”

He pointed to the global rollout of anti-COVID vaccines, saying “the conditions are in place to ensure that an individual act of protection can become a collective instrument of protection.”

Bassetti also pointed to the “social fracture” caused by the pandemic, part of which has been long-term periods of solitude and isolation, which increase the risk of mental health issues and even suicide.

“Young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, and vulnerable people are the first victims of these infirmities of the soul,” Bassetti said, stressing the importance of developing “a vaccine for mental health or, as the Holy Father has called it, a vaccine for the heart, the building blocks of which are truly active and vital principles such as respect, gratitude, altruism, empathy, knowledge.”

In addition to the mental health concerns associated with the coronavirus, another “fracture” Bassetti highlighted was the growth of new forms of poverty, which is a problem he said, that “is becoming more and more pressing.”

“It’s clear that a series of problems of a structural character, known for some time, and which have long been underestimated, must be addressed without delay,” he said, warning that if no action is taken, the risk of usury and access to organized crime will increase.

Noting that the category of the so-called “new poor,” meaning people who are experiencing poverty for the first time, grew from 31 to 45 percent in Italy from 2019-2020, Bassetti lamented the fact that families and small business owners are increasingly turning to the mafia for loans and help for relief from their coronavirus-related hardships.

“It’s evident that the generous solidarity of many must be accompanied by the political will to go beyond the logic of emergency measures and temporary relief to develop a strategy that is truly systemic,” Bassetti said, stressing the importance of developing “new instruments and sustainable and innovative solutions” to current problems at all levels of society.

Speaking of concerns surrounding education amid the pandemic, Bassetti said this is an area that requires the support and collaboration of everyone, and which depends on “forward thinking, creativity, and planning.”

He insisted on the need to work with young people and to allow them to be part of the process in developing projects aimed at creating more inclusive schools, better catechism, and more “lively” parishes.

Bassetti gave a shout-out to all those who, despite the complexities of navigating coronavirus restrictions and safety protocols, have continued catechesis programs and helped with liturgies.

As the Church continues to strategize in tackling these various crises, Bassetti said the role of Christian communities is to “evangelically live the crisis which also involves and passes through them, accepting it as a time of grace given to us to understand the will of God.”

Bishops, he said, “must not lose sight of this horizon, because in it we glimpse a prospect of the future for ecclesial communities, called to develop new awareness of their presence and mission in the world.”

“In this sense, it is decisive that ecclesial actions continue to be put into place to bring about that dynamic communion that gives shape to a synodal Church,” he said, adding, “we have a method: the discernment of the faith; we have an interest: the person; we have a perspective: the community. We walk on this path.”

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