ROME – When the Catholic history of the coronavirus is written – and it’ll be a rollicking story, which is still unfolding before our eyes – a special footnote will have to be reserved for Father Leonardo Ricotta of Palermo in Sicily, who, this week, became the first priest to resign in protest over anti-infection restrictions.
To be clear, Ricotta didn’t resign as a priest but as the pastor of the Church of Sant’Agata a Villabate in the Archdiocese of Palermo, because he couldn’t accept rules requiring communion to be distributed only in the hand by a priest wearing protective gloves. Doing so, he said, turns the act of giving communion into a “Eucharistic butcher shop.”
“Administering communion like that is a sacrilege,” Ricotta said May 18 during his first public Mass since the lockdown began in early March.
“Fragments of the Body of Christ could stick to gloves that are then thrown away. Am I supposed to throw Christ into the recycling bin? I’d rather not give it at all.”
Instead, Ricotta said, he’d lead people in making a spiritual communion.
“If I have to give my people poisoned food, it’s much better to continue the fast,” he said. “The life of faith is certainly sacramental, but when that’s not possible, or when they try to transform it into a sacrilege, God creates a by-pass.”
Afterwards, some social media channels initially asserted that Ricotta had been removed from his post by Archbishop Corrado Lorefice of Palermo, compelling the archdiocese to issue a statement stating that instead Ricotta had stepped down.
“Personal convictions presented by single individuals as authentic doctrine cannot be imposed on the faithful,” it said, quoting a Vatican document to the effect that it’s up to the local bishop to issue norms for the liturgy, “by which all are bound.”
In miniature, the situation in Palermo captures the broader tensions of the Francis papacy.
Ricotta, unsurprisingly, is a staunch traditionalist. Two days before his act of defiance over communion, he posted a video to Youtube, his title for which was: “An enflamed homily against heresy, apostasy and false ecumenism in the Church.” (While he delivered it, Ricotta wore the traditional priestly biretta.)
“Ecumenism has been one of the disasters of the past 60 post-conciliar years of catastrophe,” he said.
“For 2,000 years, the Church was an unsinkable battleship … we defeated the Roman Empire, Atilla the Hun, Hitler, Napoleon, the Soviet Union. Today, this battleship has become a paper tiger. All it took was a microorganism to sink it.”
Lorefice, meanwhile, is a classic “Pope Francis” bishop. He did his doctoral thesis on Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, one of the liberal giants at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and Father Giuseppe Dossetti, a pro-democracy hero of the Italian Catholic left who was eventually ordained under Lercaro.
Another personal guiding light is Blessed Pino Puglisi, Sicily’s anti-mafia priest gunned down by assassins in 1983, whose closeness to the poor in the tough Palermo neighborhood of Brancaccio, especially youth at risk of gravitating to a life of crime, was the stuff of legend.
In other words, the standoff between Ricotta and Lorefice isn’t just about how to distribute communion. It also pits two different ecclesiastical worldviews against one another.
Perhaps predictably, supporters of Ricotta see Lorefice as the villain, wondering why he couldn’t practice a little bit of that decentralization liberals are fond of touting. Those who side with the archbishop ask why traditionalists often seem to forget that obedience to legitimate authority is also fairly traditional in Catholicism.
By way of coincidence, the situation in Palermo unfolded at the same time that Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, released the results of a new poll from the country’s leading research institute regarding attitudes towards what the Italians call La Ripresa, meaning the gradual emergence from the quarantine of the past two months.
As it turns out, the top public concern isn’t a new spike in infection rates. Surprisingly, it’s not even that the traditional Ferragosto vacation in mid-August might be disrupted.
Instead, the strongest note of public anxiety came in response to the following question:
“Do you believe that in the months to come, everything will go back to the way it was before the emergency, and feelings of anger and division will be obstacles to recovery from the economic crisis and slow it down?”
Overall, 63 percent of Italians, meaning two-thirds of the country, answered “yes.” The finding was consistent by political affiliation, including 72 percent of voters for the mainstream liberal party, the Democrats, and 69 percent of supporters of the largest faction on the right, the populist and anti-immigrant Lega led by Matteo Salvini.
In other words, Italians of all stripes believe the country theoretically is capable of exiting this crisis in good shape, but pre-existing ideological and political divides will prevent it.
That’s an examination of conscience the Catholic Church might profitably undertake as well, because the challenges certain to face the Church as the pandemic recedes are mammoth.
After two months of being told that physical attendance at Mass isn’t strictly necessary, will people go back to Church? As the economy goes into recession, will Catholic charities around the world find the resources they need to fill the gaps? As parishes, dioceses and even the Vatican itself face declining income and rising costs, will reforms succeed at introducing savings while boosting transparency and accountability? As new styles of life and ways of relating to other people begin to take hold out of fear of another contagion, will the Church be able to help people navigate the spiritual and cultural uncertainties? For those scarred by loss during the pandemic, will the Church stand ready to console them and help them regain their footing?
Those are real questions, and, like previous eras of history when a plague or other disaster has receded, finding answers will require creativity and collaboration.
Granted, the global Church is a different animal from Italy. Still, the Palermo dispute might be a sort of canary in the coal mine, alerting Catholics that if we’re not careful, our pre-existing divisions could get in our way too.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.