By Mattia Ferraresi
March 10, 2020
Where does God self-quarantine during an epidemic? Not in a church, probably. At least not in a church in northern Italy, the center of the largest coronavirus outbreak in a Western country so far. Masses and other religious services, including funerals, have been suspended for weeks there, in keeping with government rulings to curb the contagion. On Sunday, the same day the government announced that the north was going under lockdown, all religious services throughout Italy, including those at mosques and synagogues, were canceled until at least April 3. (On Monday, travel restrictions were extended to the whole country.)
The suspensions have generated some strange outcomes: Until this past weekend, the Milan Cathedral was open to tourists, but not to worshipers. Even weekday Mass was prohibited, even though it typically attracts smaller crowds than the average bar at aperitivo time, a nonnegotiable social ritual in Italy. Religious services in Venice have also been canceled, including the celebrations in the Basilica of Saint Mary of Health, the baroque masterpiece that was built as a votive offering to mark the end of the plague that decimated the city’s population in 1630-31. Believers have been told to watch offerings of Sunday Mass broadcast on local TV or online, even though the difference between the two is like sitting next to a bonfire and contemplating a picture of it, as the Archbishop of Milan said while celebrating Mass in the empty cathedral.
Similar measures have been taken in Japan, South Korea and Iran, where several million worshipers have been deprived of the existential comfort of attending religious ceremonies in a moment of grave uncertainty and confusion. In an unprecedented step, Saudi Arabia suspended pilgrimages to the holy sites of Islam. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was closed after a coronavirus case was confirmed in the area. Many more believers will be facing similar restrictions as the virus spreads. In the United States on Monday, congregants at a Washington, D.C., church were asked to self-quarantine after a priest who’d recently given them communion tested positive for coronavirus.
No one should dispute the need to strictly limit ritual gatherings and comply with public safety regulations, especially after the services in the secretive Shincheonji Church became a hotbed of infection in South Korea. Holy water is not a hand sanitizer and prayer is not a vaccine. Political decisions aimed to guarantee public safety should be based solely on scientific evidence.
But for believers, religion is a fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope. It’s a remedy against despair, providing psychological and emotional support that is an integral part of well-being. (It’s also an antidote to loneliness, which several medical experts point to as one of the most worrisome public health issues of our time.)
At a deeper level, religion, for worshipers, is the ultimate source of meaning. The most profound claim of every religion is to make sense of the whole of existence, including, and perhaps especially, circumstances marked by suffering and tribulation. Take such claims seriously enough, and even physical health, when it is devoid of greater purpose, starts to look like a hollow value. The history of religions is full of believers who risked their lives to defend their freedom of worship against some sort of authority. After the Roman emperor Diocletian prohibited Christians from gathering for worship, some of them were caught celebrating Mass in the town of Abitinae, in present-day Tunisia. They were tortured and eventually killed. Asked why they violated the emperor’s command, one of them replied, “Without the Lord’s Day, we cannot live.”
“For these Christians, the Sunday Eucharist was not a commandment, but an inner necessity,” Pope Benedict XVI said during a 2007 homily. “Without him who sustains our lives, life itself is empty,”
Today the threat comes from a virus that makes no distinction between believers and atheists, but the fundamental tension between religion and secular authorities is still there. In Italy, a traditionally Catholic country where only about 20 percent of the population attend weekly Mass, churches are being treated as providers of nonessential services, like movie theaters and concert halls. That has sparked intense reactions among some Catholics, who see the celebrations as particularly essential at a time when an invisible and pervasive menace strikes not just bodies but also souls, spreading panic and eroding social trust. What’s the difference between a handful of people gathering in a church, keeping safely at distance from one another, and groups meeting at restaurants, bars or riding the subway? The question is a practical one but hints at an underlying tension around religious freedom that the medical emergency is revamping.
The Catholic hierarchy readily complied with the Italian government’s decisions. Too readily, according to some. “The interruption of public worship has been welcomed by the Italian Church with some bureaucratic laziness,” wrote the church historian Alberto Melloni in the newspaper La Repubblica. The Episcopal Conference of Italy made a weak gesture of protest — in a statement it complained of a “highly restrictive” decree — but went no further. Some commentators have lamented that religious authorities didn’t try — or didn’t try hard enough — to reach a compromise that would allow celebrations to continue, perhaps complying with the sanitary regulations by, say, capping the numbers of participants or shorten celebrations by reducing them to their most essential elements. Critics of the decision noted that Mass in Italy was not suspended even during the bombings in World War II.
The tension between physical health and spiritual comfort is in some ways an irreconcilable one — a dilemma in which acting to protect an indisputable value inevitably generates some sort of interior starvation. Nonetheless, there’s something sad about how this time around, the tension has barely been treated as something real, to be genuinely grappled with.
When the religious needs of practicing people aren’t met, they tend to look for other ways to fulfil them. For some Catholics in Italy’s north, that means gathering for clandestine Masses at priests’ houses and other private places, potentially smaller and more crowded than a church. News about impromptu, unauthorized services is widely circulating on WhatsApp and other social media. Worshipers in the most Northern provinces were until recently crossing the border with Switzerland to go to Mass, before the government severely restricted travel. In a small village near Pavia, southwest of Milan, an 88-year-old priest was reported to the police because he celebrated Sunday Mass in the local church. Eight parishioners were in attendance.
Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.
Original Headline: God vs. Coronavirus
Source: The New York Times