Italy has been one of the countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic, with 15,113 confirmed cases and more than 1000 deaths as of March 12.
The Italian government has taken measures in response. On March 9 it extended “red zone” restrictions already in place in the north to all of Italy, discouraging people nationwide from all unessential travel and from leaving their homes unless it was for work, getting food, medicines or seeing a doctor. Churches and places of worship in Italy were allowed to stay open, but they had to guarantee people stayed three feet apart and avoided congregating. All civil and religious ceremonies like weddings and funerals are not allowed until after April 3.
After the Italian government issued a decree barring the celebration of all “civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals”, the Italian bishops announced the suspension of public Masses until April 3.
Further restrictions followed by Government order, including the closure of all businesses except grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands and other essential services.
NZ Catholic spoke to New Zealand priest Fr Peter Janssen, SM, who is assistant priest in Pratola Peligna, a town with 9000 inhabitants in the Diocese of Sulmona in the Abruzzo region of Italy, about how he and people in the parish (which includes a shrine to Our Lady of Deliverance — initially from a plague in 1500AD), are faring at this time.
NZC: Fr Janssen, how have the current restrictions affected your life and ministry?
Fr Janssen: Even though there are no cases in our town and only 30 in the whole region, we are all behaving as if there were infected people or unwitting asymptomatic carriers living here. Our ministry has been severely curtailed by the order forbidding aggregations of people. For instance, we had our first funeral here since the expansion of the red zone. It was very brief and held at the cemetery rather than the church. Only the closest family members, who might be expected to share a house anyway, were present, and notably no one from out of town. Our ministry of direct pastoral contact is reduced to almost nil. A certain amount is still maintained through social media. It is all terribly frustrating.
NZC: The Pope has prayed that priests would find the courage to visit those who are sick and offer accompaniment to health care professionals and volunteers working during the coronavirus pandemic, while also keeping themselves and others safe. What are your plans in this regard?
Fr Janssen: Some people whose confession I regularly hear and to whom I take communion let it be known that they do not want anyone visiting them, even/especially the priest, who might be a carrier of contagion caught from other sick people. Perhaps they are right, because we do not know enough about this virus. No one can say for sure how long the incubation period is and the symptoms seem to be on a spectrum from asymptomatic to regular flu-like to deadly pneumonia. Even the medical advice is changing subtly. At one stage those with flu-like symptoms were encouraged to stay home and ride it out, but now they are finding that, when such types eventually have to go to hospital, . . . they are amongst the worst cases. My instinct is to be a modern-day Charles Borromeo, and go out of my way to visit the sick and even nurse them. Fortunately, at the moment it is a hypothetical question. There are no cases near about — and please God there will not be — but reasonably, I would expect those who are really sick and fearful to be ministered to by the hospital chaplains. Of course, I would be available to help out there.
NZC: How have your parishioners reacted to the suspension of public Masses until April 3? How do you feel about it?
The most common response is a disappointed resignation. To me it seems to be too drastic a move to suspend all public Masses — we should have more faith. But on the other hand, Italy is far from being the country of faith that it once was. The government had to extend the red zone to the whole country because (mainly) university students and school teachers treated the original two-week closure of schools and universities as holiday time. Only, they were frustrated that in their zone all places of entertainment were closed, so tens of thousands of them “escaped” to the ski fields and the South of Italy to enjoy their unexpected “holiday”. The North has much better medical resources than the South. Even in the North they are struggling to cope, but the death toll in the South would be horrendous if the virus were allowed to spread there. Unfortunately, when people will not do the right thing out of Christian care for one’s neighbour or out of civic conscience, they have to be taught and constrained. Perhaps the Church has also to play an exemplary role in that.
NZC: Is your parish doing live-streaming of Masses over the Internet? What is being done in your parish to help people spiritually? (And practically?)
Fr Janssen: All Masses are now private (only our religious community) in our house chapel. They are not streamed, but at the hour when Mass is on, parishioners are encouraged to participate spiritually. The Bishop of Sulmona has made his Masses available on YouTube and there is no shortage of Masses transmitted over TV. It is a totally new situation for us as well, so we are doing what we can, and as permitted by the regulations now in force, but it is rather ad hoc. Maintaining contact through social media and the parish website is more important than ever.
NZC: Are people in your town/village fearful about the virus and doing things like panic-shopping? Are people too fearful, in your opinion?
Fr Janssen: As far as I can tell, no one is fearful enough to go in for panic-buying or stockpiling. In this region there are so few confirmed cases that it all seems a long way away. The hyper-coverage in the media, if anything, is having a desensitising effect.
NZC: What are you saying to people to encourage them at this time?
Fr Janssen: I tell them to pray to Madonna della Libera — she saved Pratola from the plague and many other disasters before and she can do it again.
NZC: Are people coming into your church to pray?
Fr Janssen: Yes, but not as many as usual. Because all the shops and cafés are closed, no one is venturing out much.
NZC: How is your own health? Do you worry that you might catch the virus?
Fr Janssen: Right now, I am in good, if not perfect, health. However, if I get a cold, I have a tendency to develop bronchitis. Apparently, that is an indicator of those who might be expected to suffer more severe symptoms should they contract the virus. So, short of wearing a face mask, I’m taking all reasonable precautions.
NZC: What can we in New Zealand do to help?
Fr Janssen: Prayer! Please pray for the sufferers and those who fear for their health and/or livelihood. Especially, please pray for the medical staffs of the hospital intensive care units. They are becoming exhausted, physically, emotionally and mentally. I would love to be able to tell the parishioners that the New Zealand Church is praying in solidarity with them.