ROME – In common parlance, we use the phrase “more Catholic than the pope” to poke fun at people who take it upon themselves to defend the Church more stridently or aggressively than its actual leaders. In Italy there’s a fair bit of that going around right now in political circles, which may reflect a perceived ecclesiastical leadership vacuum on a question troubling many ordinary believers.
To wit: When can I go back to Mass?
Last weekend, populist politician Matteo Salvini called for churches to reopen on Easter, arguing that if you can go to the tobacco shop to buy cigarettes you should be able to go to Mass. On Wednesday, the leader of the youth wing of Salvini’s far-right Lega party doubled down on the idea, proposing that “heads of families” (by which he naturally meant men) be able to go to Easter Mass to encourage their “virility,” a quality he said many politicians lack.
The suggestion brought an avalanche of derision on Italian social media channels. “Not even the Amish talk that way anymore,” one reply said. “Either you’re writing us from the Middle Ages, or you’re the reincarnation of Torquemada.”
However silly or politically opportunistic, one reason such figures get traction when they raise the question of restarting normal Church life is because they seem to be the only ones talking about it.
As Italy’s infection rate continues to decline, the government this week put together a new decree allowing certain businesses, such as bookstores, stationary shops, stores for babies and children and dry cleaners, to reopen beginning April 14. If the situation continues to improve, the lockdown for ordinary citizens could be eased beginning May 4, though high-risk groups such as the elderly still would be restricted.
Yet when I asked the Italian bishops’ conference about their own plans for a gradual return to normality – perhaps lifting the suspension on public Masses on May 4, while maintaining social distancing protocols, and permitting individual confessions under the same conditions – there wasn’t much to say.
“We’re once again representing the expectations and commitments of the ecclesiastical community to the government,” said Father Ivan Maffeis, spokesman for the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI).
“I can’t tell you more than that,” Maffeis said Friday.
The caution may be defensible under the circumstances, and certainly interaction between church and state here is never uncomplicated. Yet a perceived lack of leadership arguably has helped produce the sort of confusion that unfolded this week in Lecce, in southern Italy’s Puglia region, where a couple stopped in a church to pray on their way home after work in a business defined as “essential.” When they came out, they were stopped by police and given fines of more than $300 each for allegedly violating quarantine restrictions.
A day later police withdrew the citations, after it became clear that under the terms of a March 28 directive from Italy’s Interior Ministry, stopping into a church to pray while moving around for an authorized purpose is perfectly permissible. It’s understandable beat cops may not have known that, however, because there’s been little talk from bishops or pastors about taking advantage of the provision.
The result in some quarters has been an impression of surrender.
Recently one leftist intellectual called on the “Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics” to stop campaigning for the country’s church tax to be abolished, because, in his words, “today more than ever, Maramaldo is killing someone who’s already dead.”
(The reference is to a well-known episode from the 16th century during the Medici wars over Florence, when a soldier of fortune from Naples named Fabrizio Maramaldo first tortured and then shot a rival named Francesco Ferrucci, who allegedly cried out before Maramaldo delivered the coup de grâce, “Vile thing, you’re killing a dead man!”)
The intellectual’s suggestion was that it’s anachronistic to try to render the church irrelevant, since it’s already done so by itself.
In reality, however, to claim the church has been AWOL amid the pandemic is just ridiculous.
At the grassroots, there are stories of personal heroism and sacrifice all up and down the peninsula, including an early candidate for the saint of the pandemic: Don Fausto Resmini, who launched a program for at-risk youth in Bergamo and also served for years as a prison chaplain, and who contracted the coronavirus while carrying out his ministries and died March 23.
With four new deaths so far during Holy Week, the total number of priests lost to the coronavirus as of Friday reached 100. As Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, noted: “The great majority of these priests died from infections because they remained with their people rather than thinking about their own safety, while a few others died in rest homes.”
At the leadership level, CEI decided Thursday to devote almost $220 million of its roughly $1 billion in annual income from the church tax to poverty relief amid the pandemic. The money came from funds set aside for the upkeep of church properties, but as CEI’s secretary general, Bishop Stefano Russo, put it, “Right now, the needs of people have to prevail over buildings.”
In truth, the Catholic Church has mobilized by far the largest private response to the coronavirus of any player in the country, and it’s a frightening thought exercise to imagine how much worse things would be without it. Yet most people here won’t ever see any of that, but they do know there’s still no Mass and the bishops don’t seem to be talking about when that might change.
As a result, the church here may want to start getting ahead of the other curve that matters to ordinary folks presently chafing under a second month of quarantine – not the infection rate, but plans for a gradual return to normality. Doing so may be the price of admission for getting people to notice all the other ways in which the Church has not only remained open amid the crisis, but gone into overdrive.
As a side benefit, such leadership might also suck some wind out of the sails of the “more Catholic than the pope” crowd – which, let’s face it, would be a nice Easter present too.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.