ROME – As Italy entered the first phase of its nationwide lockdown to fight the coronavirus a few days ago, a vignette made the rounds on social media. It showed a character from the children’s carton “Minions” holding a carton of milk and dressed like a cow, with the popular hashtag here #iorestoacasa, meaning, “I’m staying home.”
After that, it read: “Because it doesn’t happen every day that you can save Italy staying in your pajamas.”
It was intended to persuade kids not to try to sneak out of the house, but it captured something of the popular spirit here, at least during the first few days of the lockdown: People really do seem to think that by obeying the restrictions decreed by the national government, they’re engaged in an effort to save the country.
The day after the most recent set of decrees went into effect, I found myself in line at a grocery store here in Rome, one of the few businesses allowed to remain open. An employee was at the door, carefully regulating the number of people allowed in at any one time. Before long, however, she was called away to deal with a delivery, and the entrance was left unguarded.
Under virtually any other set of circumstances, Italians would have crammed and pushed their way into the store. Instead, the small group immediately established a sequence of who had arrived first, patiently waited a meter apart until someone exited the store, and then went in one by one. We even decided spontaneously that an elderly lady who’d arrived with her facemask, sanitizer and shopping cart should be moved to the front of the line.
I’ve frankly never seen anything like it, and it speaks to a sense of national purpose, however short-lived it may turn out to be as restrictions begin to chafe.
Under the heading of the “dog that didn’t bark,” however, what’s also striking about the mood of common cause is who’s had precious little role in summoning it: The Catholic Church, which in previous times of crisis typically has been the glue holding Italian society together.
It was Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, not the president of the Italian bishops’ conference or the pope, who stirred the nation on Wednesday with his appeal to sacrifice and unity.
“To all those citizens worried about their jobs, their activities, their moms and dads, their grandparents and all their friends who today have to spurn their embrace, I want to say that the state has not forgotten you: It’s at your side today, and it will be tomorrow,” Conte said.
By way of contrast, neither Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference CEI, nor any other heavyweight prelate in Italy, has been especially prominent. Generally, they’ve registered only when announcing new suspensions of Masses or closures of churches, almost always in the wake of the latest government decree.
That may have begun to change, and it reached a crescendo on Friday – which, perhaps not so coincidentally, marked the seventh anniversary of Francis’s election to the papacy.
Three days ago, just after the latest Italian restrictions went into effect, Pope Francis celebrated his morning Mass at the Santa Marta residence where he lives, which is being livestreamed to the world, praying that priests “may have the courage to get out”, going to the sick to bring them the comfort of God, [and] to bring them the Eucharist” as well as to show solidarity with health workers.
Friday morning, just hours after Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the pope’s Vicar of Rome, announced that all Roman churches would be closed to the faithful until at least April 3, Francis said at the beginning of his morning Mass that “not all drastic measures are good” and that the “holy faithful people of God” should not be left alone.
Later in the morning, the pope’s own almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, essentially defied the order, opening his titular church of Santa Maria Immacolata and inviting people in for Eucharistic adoration.
Shortly after that, news broke that De Donatis was walking back his decree on closing churches. In a new letter dated Friday morning, De Donatis said he’d met with Francis, who urged him to look beyond healthcare considerations to consider the risk that “people will feel even more isolated” if they can’t even go to church to pray.
The pope’s reaction speaks to a powerful popular religious instinct in moments of crisis in Italy, which in Rome is expressed above all in the desire to pray before the image of Maria Salus Populi Romani in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
In times of plague and war, famine and desperation, generations of Romans have placed their hopes before the image, and the thought they might not be able to do so this time – even while observing common-sense limits on distance and the number of people allowed in at any given time – was deeply unsettling.
The pope’s call on priests to be courageous in getting out is also relevant, given that many priests in Rome have proven reluctant to respond to requests for private Masses or delivery of the Eucharist, citing health concerns and inviting people to practice “spiritual communion.” In fairness, many are in a high risk category because they’re elderly, or they live with elderly confreres, but nonetheless it’s striking.
Since his election seven years ago, Francis has become known for his call to “pastoral conversion,” meaning seeing the rules and structures of the Church as secondary to the pastoral care of souls.
For many Italians, this may be one of Francis’s finest pastoral moments – insisting that even amid a pandemic, their church won’t leave them completely alone.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.