ROME – Catholics are affected by the coronavirus in the same ways as everyone else, but since the Church is sui generis, it’s also having some unique implications for ecclesiastical life. In some cases well-established patterns are being reawakened, and in others the scare is creating unprecedented ironies.

Here’s a brief traipse through the Catholic ripples of the pandemic as they stand now, as seen from Rome.

How about Holy Week?

On Saturday evening, the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which generally handles the logistics of public papal events, posted a note on its web page about Holy Week. It read:

“The Prefecture of the Papal Household is concerned to communicate that, because of the current international health emergency, all of the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week will take place without the physical presence of the faithful.”

At 11:30 p.m., Vatican News, an official news site of the Vatican, posted the note on its Facebook page, and from there it was off to the races in terms of news agencies around the world picking it up.

Among many reporters who cover the Vatican, it was a matter of consternation that such seemingly major news was broken not in an official communique but rather on the site of a Vatican office generally consulted only by people looking for tickets to see the pope. The way it was handled sowed doubt about how official the news actually was.

(As a footnote, I’m forever edified by colleagues here who still manage to get upset about such meltdowns. God help me, but long ago I resigned myself to much lower expectations.)

Early Sunday afternoon we finally got an official statement, and, frankly, it raised at least as many questions as it answered. Here’s what Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said:

“Relative to the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, I can specify that they’re all confirmed. Given the actual situation, modalities of implementation and participation are being studied which respect the security measures imposed for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus. Those modalities will be communicated as soon as they’re defined, in line with the evolution of the epidemiological situation.”

So, what does that mean? Is the idea that there still could be a public presence if things get better by Holy Week? Or, as many Vatican-watchers seem to think, does the word “participation” in the statement refer mostly to the possibility of cardinals, bishops and priests concelebrating with the pope, rather than opening things up to ordinary believers?

Bruni didn’t say, and so we don’t really know. Trying to evaluate what might happen brings us to ripple number two …

The Pope’s Team Pushes Back

Italy is in the middle of a nationwide lockdown, with all restaurants, bars, pubs, coffee shops, and most businesses closed – only supermarkets, pharmacies, and a handful of other “essential” services remain open. Last Thursday, the Diocese of Rome announced that all churches in town would be closed in keeping with those security measures.

The next morning, however, Pope Francis began his daily Mass by proclaiming that “not all drastic measures are good,” and insisting that the “holy faithful people of God” must not be left alone. Just a couple of hours later, after Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, spoke with Francis, he reversed himself and announced that parish churches can stay open, trusting the “mature consciences” of the faithful to decide whether to go.

That same day, a lengthy WhatsApp message by Father Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, a Coptic Catholic who serves as a personal secretary to Pope Francis, was sent to priest friends of his in Rome. Since it’s unlikely a papal secretary would broadcast a message that undercuts his boss’s view of things, most pastors assumed it reflected the pope’s thinking.

In essence, it was a cri de coeur for priests not to abandon their posts.

“I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them,” Gaid wrote, adding, “May it never be said: ‘I won’t go to a church that didn’t come to me when I was in need’.”

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For sure, that’s not an uncontroversial position. Critics object that encouraging priests to defy the lockdown not only risks their own lives but puts other people in danger. Others, however, insist that if the Church believes what it says about the Eucharist, if it believes that people need spiritual care just as much as medicine and security, then priests ought to be out there on the front lines just like doctors and cops.

Also on Sunday, Pope Francis left the Vatican by car to visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray before the celebrated image of Maria Salus Populi Romani, meaning “Mary, Health of the Roman People,” to whom Romans have always turned in times of trouble. Francis then went to a street known as a famed shopping center, where he walked briefly on foot to the church of San Marcello al Corso, home to a miraculous crucifix which, in 1522, was taken by procession to Roman neighborhoods struck by plague.

All of that, of course, was not strictly speaking in keeping with government injunctions to stay at home, expressed in the Italian hashtag campaign #iorestoacasa, “I’m staying at home.” (By the way, the Italian church has launched its own social media version, #iopregoacasa, “I’m praying at home.”)

Perhaps all this, in the end, is why the Vatican is being a bit coy about Holy Week. It may be trying to balance legitimate public health concerns with the concern that people will remember who stood by their side when the chips were down.

A Catacombs Sunday

At the personal level, Italy’s lockdown is creating a bizarre reality in which Catholics who want to get to Mass find themselves in a sort of catacombs situation unseen on the peninsula since the era of Roman persecutions of the early Church.

As of Saturday evening in Rome, my wife and I had resigned ourselves to not being able to attend Mass the next morning, and therefore we were planning to watch the livestreamed papal Mass at 7:00 a.m. as the next best thing. However, we spoke to another couple here in town who told us about a parish near them where the pastor had quietly told people he’d be saying Mass Sunday morning for anyone who wanted to come.

We decided to go, and then engaged in a brief brainstorming session on the following point: If police ask us what we’re doing out of the house, what are we going to say?

Under restrictions imposed by the Italian government, there are only a handful of legitimate reasons for moving around town. They include work, a health issue backed up by a note from a doctor, and “routine necessities” such as going to the grocery story or pharmacy. Notably, going to church is not on the list.

For the record, our plan was to say we were visiting a friend who couldn’t get out and needed us to prepare a meal. In all honesty, being caught wasn’t that big a worry, since the very worst that might have happened was a fine which, thanks be to God, we probably could afford.

Yet in one of the world’s most pervasively Catholic societies, in the pope’s own backyard where Catholic prayer and worship has always been at the heart of responding to any perceived crisis, the fact you even have to think about such things … well, it’s unprecedented, a little bit unnerving, and just downright weird.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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