Andrea Pin is Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Padua
The spread of COVID-19 in Italy is bringing to the surface various aspects of the country’s popular culture and the role of faith. The rapid contagion that in three weeks has claimed more than 1,000 lives, filled hospitals’ intensive care units, frozen the economy, and forced Italians to stay home, is pushing people to reconsider their priorities and how they pursue them.
For many Italians, staying at home is hard—the stereotype that Italians like socializing turns out to be true. The fear and the experience of deadly diseases are a staple in Italian culture. Paintings of Saint Rocco, the protector from the black plague, are everywhere. Students learn Italian literature of the fourteenth century through reading Boccaccio’s Decameron (a point of reference for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), which revolves around the 1348 black plague in Florence. They know of cholera through the late nineteenth-century novel Malavoglia by Giovanni Verga. But what immediately comes to an Italian’s mind over these past few weeks is Alessandro Manzoni’s masterpiece The Betrothed, a mid-nineteenth century novel that depicts the 1630 black plague in Milan. Students study it so thoroughly that they often come to hate it. The COVID-19 epicenter has been Milan and its surroundings, making the emotional connection with The Betrothed particularly strong.
Still, even these painful memories of what diseases can do have been insufficient to persuade people to avoid human contact. The early restrictions that warmly encouraged Italians to remain isolated were met with resistance from younger generations, who did not want to renounce their social lives. It was only later, when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that lockdowns would be strengthened and extended to most Northern territories, that people in Northern regions got scared. They realized that they would be stuck in frozen cities while COVID-19 patients flooded hospitals, to the extent that some healthcare facilities now must select who to put into intensive care and who to let die. Many turned off their TVs, packed their luggage, and ran south by car or train, likely spreading the virus in areas with poorer healthcare facilities.
Now, almost everybody is stuck at home throughout the country—only a limited number of economic activities are still running. Many have found new ways to socialize; almost everyone uses the internet, but many neighbors also sing songs together from their house balconies.
Where has faith gone? Italy is still a predominantly Catholic country. Although its membership is decreasing, Catholicism is still claimed by just below 80% of the population, and 40% report attending church regularly, making Italy first among Western European Countries.
The first limitations on religious activities in the North entered into force right before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent and is an important event for Catholics. For the first time in centuries, they could not attend the opening ceremony of the period that culminates with Easter.
In order to limit the spread of the virus, Catholic mass and other religious ceremonies are now suspended throughout the country; in some areas churches remain open for limited hours and only for personal prayer, but in large cities such as Rome they have been closed to discourage the mobility of individuals. Eucharists celebrated by bishops in empty cathedrals are broadcasted throughout the country. Weddings have been suspended. Burial rites are restricted and can be attended only by the deceased’s family and close relatives. Last Sunday, the Pope appeared only via live-streaming for his usual Angelus in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.
The limitations imposed on Catholic rites have been met with mixed feelings. Overall, the Church’s leadership has complied with restriction measures. Lay believers, however, have resisted. Many funeral gatherings have challenged the restrictions. Sizeable numbers of Catholics have snuck into small chapels hoping to attend the mass that every priest must celebrate at least once a day. At the end of last Sunday’s streamed Angelus, believers gathering in St. Peter’s Square called for the Pope to show up, even if only for a quick, silent blessing.
There is reason for such resistance. Catholics believe that, by gathering with each other during mass, they form the Church and receive the actual body of their Lord. Personal prayers are not a substitute for this encounter with Jesus in the community and in the eucharist. While a broadcasted mass does allow believers to attend the liturgy, it does not permit them to physically meet Jesus by eating his body and gathering with his people.
More recently, many Italian Catholics seem to have come to terms with a special Lent, which calls them to find new ways to practice their faith. Through their daily prayers, they connect with God as well as with the rest of the Catholic community throughout the world. They attend broadcasted masses during which they meet Jesus, although only spiritually. They do charitable work by keeping an appropriate distance from each other. Most importantly, they experience Lent as a slow, painful experience of deprivation and of longing for Jesus. This all is making faith more personal and intimate, and the longing for resurrection more acute.
Some have suggested that bishops and priests ought to lead Catholics into broad city processions to ask that God deliver the country from the disease, citing Saint Carlo Borromeo’s historical act in Milan for the plague. Thankfully, no one has heeded this call—Carlo was not aware of how the black plague spread. Now, we know.
Catholic mass is deserted, but religious commitment has certainly not abated. Priests do their job alone, while worshippers say their prayers at home. The Archbishop of Milan recently addressed the statue of Holy Mary that sits atop the beautiful Duomo of the city with the centuries-old Lombard anthem O mia bela Madunina, asking for the city to be saved from the disease. In the beach area of Bibione, a priest carried around a statue of the Madonna in the bed of a small, open truck, blessing the city. Strangely, the uncertainties surrounding the spread of the virus have urged everybody to think hard on what to hold onto. It is hard to wait when you do not know when and how this is all going to end. Certainly, loneliness and sickness have reinvigorated a religious feeling or spiritual hunger in many Italians, leading them to find new ways to feed it. This can be attested by the author, who was quarantined while writing this piece, after a member of the university staff fell sick with COVID-19.