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The Closure of Roman Churches and the Angelicum by McKenzie Flowers Fergus

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

(An early March, 2020 reflection)

I looked up from my desk at the Pontifical University and observed not the colossal crucifix on the wall but a small, antique clock striking 3:17pm. My computer abruptly disgorged a colorful pop-up news alert—something regarding “dat virus,” as I liked to call it. But I actively chose to ignore the news alert, noting instead the figure of Christ on the wall. He had yellow skin, and his face appeared pensive—-a face and likeness that 7.5 billion people interpret differently.

Then and there, I allowed myself immersion into the paradoxical reality of cognitive dissonance. I am in a geographically undesirable area, I thought. As if on cue, an undeniably Italian siren-horn sounded outside my classroom window. I was alone in a foreign country. In certain uncontrollable situations, is it better to know less about an unknown, rather than wait alone and scared for the repercussions of the known?

At the time, my class was on a brief break; or, what I like to call “a cappuccino break”- a wonderful Italian novelty of a 15-minute intermission every hour of class. Suddenly, I received a text message from a friend back in the States in medical school who was planning to visit me in Rome: “The US State Department travel advisory is level 3. Upon returning, I have residency training in a hospital. I can’t go out there.” I texted back, trying to convince her to reconsider; “no crowds! The streets are absolutely desolate. You’ll see the Eternal City from such a unique and special angle.” I may as well have been selling coins to a local at the Trevi fountain.

Little did I know that in a few short hours my school would close its doors for the unforeseen future following governmental sanctions---regulations that would later culminate into a nation-wide lockdown. By Monday, March 9th, all the cinemas, theaters and, more importantly for a tourist, museums were closed in Rome. A few days after that, another headline announced: the WHO dubbed the COVID19 “a pandemic.” Travel within Italy was stringently restricted, along with a ban on public gatherings to boot, even in the boot of Italy.

A fellow student and Catholic Father alerted me to the severity of another development on March 12th: “All of the Churches are closed. They aren’t allowing priests to conduct many people are being denied the holy sacrament." Historians claimed that this is the first time that all Churches in Rome have closed in totality.

On March 10th, Pope Francis urged priests to “have the courage to go out and see the sick, bringing the strength of the word of God.”

Following governmental sanctions on March 12th, the Vicar of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, closed all the places of worship across the Italian capital: 900 in total. A graduate student from a Pontifical University responded to the sanctions on a Whatsapp chat: “If pubs and restaurants can continue to serve people then surely the Churches can put in place measures? They served the people during the bubonic plague and Spanish influenza. If Churches are closed now when many people seek refuge, one has to question their overarching purpose. If Churches do not embody their core purpose, then they will only further be seen by others simply as sites of artistic interest and the many dividing gulfs will only widen, possibly irreparably if this issue is not addressed urgently.”

On Friday the 13th, when Pope Francis met with De Donatis a subsequent decision was made to reopen (as news headlines read) “some Churches” in Rome. Despite pressure from the government, the Church would foremost address the needs of its people in fearful times. De Donatis explains why the original decision was readdressed: “He [Pope Francis] prompted us to consider another need.”

Since the first closing of all Italian Churches, Catholic Priests continued to stress one point: For Churchgoers who do not have access to the Eucharist, “immediate considerations must be made.”

In a sense, the Eucharist is the life-blood of the Church. Father Richard Gokum explains why: “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church's life. The doors of the Catholic churches in Rome have never closed, even in times of famine and war, because people recognize the church’s presence as the last refuge when everything else fails." He adds, "in this pilgrimage of life, the Eucharist is meant to sustains us all." Catholic priests especially draw strength from the Holy Sacrament to do work and charity.

Father Gokum sums up the words of so many I interviewed. The essence of the Holy Communion is a “life source” for all Catholics. “Without the eucharist one’s soul is starved; the experience is like going without food,” claims Father Gokum. He also understands that precautionary measures must be taken; for, as the virus spreads, clergy must not put themselves or others in danger.

Fr. Gokum shared theological insights related to the current crisis by discussing the Eucharist in relation to “baptism by desire.” He elaborates on the definition. If an individual is not baptized following death—and if this person righteously and honestly sought baptism and committed themselves to a life of seeking Jesus Christ and living by his commands—then by an implicit desire they will receive the sacrament of baptism. Emphasis on the words “at least by desire,” in the following Canon law discussing baptism: “...baptism, the gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by desire.” (Canon 849). A parallel can be made to “baptism by desire,” and the issue of a Catholic Church-goer who desires the sacrament, yet finds it inaccessible.

Theologically theorizing he expands on this idea: “if one desires the Eucharist but cannot receive the holy sacrament, due to circumstances out of their control, a pure and righteous desire may grant them the strength of the sacrament.” This means that a righteous desire for the Holy Sacrament can perhaps replace its role in specific instances.

During the Holy Communion, according to Catholic tradition, Christ is present and people draw from the sacrament a source of strength and logos, as interpreted by one of my theology professors to mean: “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos.” John 1:1 reads: In the beginning was “the word.” A Greek translation of word is “logos,” also interpreted to mean Christ or reason. Mass is a sacred time that is meant to remind believers of life and all that it encompasses.

But in God’s infinite glory, is a believer's desire for the sacrament enough to temporarily provide a piece of logos of peace within? During times of crisis, perhaps a desire for the sacrament can temporarily serve as a comforting alternative such as when attending a mass at an online live streaming service. For those who can both afford the technology and have the tech-savvy skills to participate, some Churches are conducting services remotely.

And back to that moment at the Angelicum when I looked up at the clock above the crucifix; it seems that time itself is one of our greatest enemies during this pandemic. As scientists race to understand the coronavirus disease, it spreads rapidly elsewhere. The number of confirmed cases in my home country of the U.S.A. have grown exponentially. Globally, the situation is serious.

In Italy, we wait in isolation, and are told not to leave except for scheduled food runs. Even walking closely by anyone on the street to get groceries brings up fearful questions. What if that person I pass on the street (the one wearing a red jump-suit and sunglasses with a pleasant smile) is asymptomatic and sneezes on me? Similar thoughts certainly pop into my head when I wait outside the grocery store, as only one person at a time is allowed to shop for groceries.

Churchgoers likely find the current situation a fearful time, and would rather avoid all public gathers, including Mass. One Friar responds to this issue: “I totally understand those who perhaps are afraid and would not feel safe coming to Church in the current climate and for that, I have found the Church to be very humane. That is totally acceptable but there are plenty of Catholics who, despite this difficult time want to pray [in the Church], and as a priest I want them to know that I am at their service.”

It is a difficult time of isolation, or quarantine—a word that derives from the Italian language, quaranta translated to mean forty. The word “quarantine” holds maritime origins. During the bubonic plague epidemic of the 14th century, ships were mandated to anchor for 40 days in isolation before porting. In the bible, the number 40 has significant symbolic meanings. Theologians associate the number with the meaning of “probation” and “trial.” The number is also connected with Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness along with the Genesis flood. Another notable reference is the number of years that the Israelites wandered the desert of Paran. Perhaps the most relevant symbolic association: 40 days of lent.

It is roughly 40 days before the Easter holiday. Italians were originally advised to “stay home” until April 3rd. Since March 19th Italy’s lockdown has been extended until further notice. Easter is only a week after April 3rd. With the pandemic escalating in Italy, Churchgoers are left to wonder if Easter Sunday services will be canceled in their Churches.

Attending the Easter Vigil is a rule of thumb for all Catholics. The importance of receiving the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist during Easter is highlighted in the Six Precepts of the Catholic Church (meaning, critical guidelines to follow for Catholics). With the holiday a few weeks away the question arises: Will Mass be widely accessible to the laity on Easter Sunday?

A Friar states: “at present nobody can say whether or not the Easter liturgy will be publicly celebrated. It should be; it must be. It is the surest way to fight the coronavirus...Certainly, there are restrictions in place which must be respected.”

There are places in the world where access to a Church (let alone the eucharist) is not possible for weeks, months, years at a time. In China, for example, it is not easy to imagine how a Christian could live his or her entire life without ever seeing the Eucharist. In Australia, where so many dioceses are desert locked, parishioners wait to hear news by airmail from the local traveling priest, usually once every month, but sometimes in flooding seasons, three months. A Catholic Father from Pakistan offers insight input: “I know the value of the eucharist. Or rather, I learned of its precious value as many towns in Pakistan are located far from a Catholic Church, and believers often are unable to take communion for up to two months at a time.”

Imagine if, ever since you could remember, you went for months on end without something you found precious and fundamental to your spiritual wellbeing? As for the closure of Churches in Rome the Father states: “Those who celebrate mass daily (or even weekly) will feel the need of Eucharist in their life, and it is terrible that it is less accessible.”

Those facing these difficult times and challenging sanctions may soon catch a glimpse into the lives of many other Churchgoers around the world. No matter where we exercise our faith, whether that be at a Synagogue, Temple, Shrine, Mosque, or Basilica, perhaps this challenging time offers opportunities for us to better learn to evaluate and re-examine what we are grateful for. Americans, for example, may generally see Church services as a basic right available to all —yet, many forget that they are the exception.

Christians worldwide still remain isolated or physically far from an open Church or place of worship. For those who are unable to find the solace of a place of worship right now--maybe they sit in a hospital bed or fear leaving home due to high-risk vulnerabilities--wherever they may be or whatever their unique situation, I hope that they can look to find new meaning in the little wonders and blessings that we regularly take for granted. This fresh meaning can also be found in pondering why it is we desire and what this desire signifies.

Christians are representatives of the way, the truth, and the life. A life that is wrapped up in serving others (as the Catholics like to say) through virtues.

So, what will all Christian Churches resemble during this crisis? Perhaps we must first begin answering this question by asking ourselves what this period resembles—on a personal and spiritual level. This might look like: praying on the telephone with friends instead of at Bible studies; attending services online; designing a to-do list for your spirituality. And there are numerous ways to give back right now; reach out to the elderly through electronic mediums; pick up some groceries for those out of work. At the store, do not hoard products and only take what you need. The more you overstock on supplies, the less it is available for your sick neighbors, doctors and emergency response personnel. Steering conversations away from “what is missing” and towards “what can I do to help society” contributes to the image of the church, even if in a small way.

And on a Sunday morning in the near future perhaps, meandering down the winding streets of Rome unannounced you might see a Church with open doors. What does it represent to you? If you walk in stepping closer towards the altar holding life, remember that for you and the congregation surrounding the Eucharist you and your future and past are ad infinitum wrapped up in that present moment in time.

Santi Domenico e Sisto, Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas

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