To beat fear of contagion we bring our churches to their knees. Andrea Riccardi on the decision of stopping masses and prayers for the coronavirus

The closure of so many churches in Northern Italy, the suspension of the masses, the funerals with only family members and measures of this kind have left me a certain bitterness. I am not an epidemiologist, but are we really facing such great risks that we are giving up our communal religious life? Prudence is needed, but perhaps we got carried away by the great protagonist of time: fear. Nevertheless, shops, supermarkets and bars (partly) are open, while buses and metro are operating. And rightly so. Churches have been almost equated to theatres and cinemas (which have been forced to close). Better yet, they can remain open, but without common prayer.

What danger are the weekdays masses, in which a handful of people participate, scattered on the benches in large-scale buildings? Definitely less than a bar, a metro or a supermarket. Only in Emilia weekday masses were allowed. A strong sign of fear. But also the expression of the flattening of the Church on civil institutions. Churches are not only a “gathering” at risk, but also a place of the spirit: a resource in difficult times, which inspires hope, consoles and reminds us that we cannot be saved by ourselves.

I want to recall Carlo Borromeo, between 1576 and ’77, at the time of the plague in Milan (an epidemic far more serious than the coronavirus, fought only with bare hands): he visited the sick, prayed with the people and walked barefoot in a large procession for the end of the scourge. Certainly, common prayer in the church fosters hope and solidarity. We do know how strong and spiritual motivations can help to resist illness: it is a common experience.

American sociologist Rodney Stark, writing about the rise of Christianity in the early centuries, notices how decisive the behaviour of Christians in epidemics was: they did not flee like the pagans outside the cities and did not escape the others, rather (motivated by faith), visited and supported the sick, prayed together, and buried the dead. Their survival rate was higher than the pagans thanks to conscientious care, even without medication, and the strong community and social bond. Times change, but recent measures on the coronavirus seem to trivialise the space of the Church, revealing the mentality of governors.

In the face of great fear, only the message of politics resonates - the sole and uncertain protagonist of these days. Silence in churches (even if they are open) is a bit of a void in society: the free encounter together in prayer would have been quite a different message, even if it takes prudence and self-control. Social, radio and television do not replace it. One understands why the Archbishop of Turin, Monsignor Nosiglia, complained that, in the Ordinance of the Piedmont Region (similar to the others of the North) religious services are considered superfluous and therefore not exempt from restrictive measures. And therefore: superfluous. It is a fact to reflect on: the product of a policy pursuing fear, even if sometimes religious symbols are exhibited.

However, the religious symbol of excellence is the community in prayer. Not even at the time of the bombing and the passage of the front during the Second World War (when the Church was the soul of a people’s strength), were churches closed and prayers suspended. Indeed, people were gathering confidently in them, despite the dangers of bombs and massacres. Perhaps the collaboration of the local ecclesiastical authority with the regional authorities was too much understood as subordination to the latter. In this way, the Church’s presence and contribution, which instead makes a contribution to people’s lives, is trivialised. Very sad funerals are held at the cemetery, with only a few family members. Silence and religious solitude are a burden among difficulties.

Let us try to listen to the feelings of God’s people: in Padua the family of a 14-year-old girl, crushed by an illness, refused the private funeral and was allowed by authorities to do in open-air to allowing many young people to participate.


Translation by editorial staff