This Lent and Easter in Rome are the most silent in all the history of the Church. Rome is on total lockdown. The fears of the coronavirus have led to the shutdown of the country. A special report

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”… Then He told them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places… Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country stay out of the city… “When these things begin to happen, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” —Luke 21:5-28

I asked a young colleague, Dr. Jan Bentz, 32, to reflect on these painful times. This young German scholar — he earned a doctorate in philosophy — is a writer who lives in Rome with his wife. They have just had their first baby. He encourages all of us to hold fast to our faith, to persevere in hope, and to stay close to the Lord and one another in charity during these times. This is a letter he wrote for us about these days in Rome.—RM

By Dr. Jan Bentz, Letter from Rome, March 19

Lent has begun and, nolens volens, the world is taking part. This year’s particular penance bears a name: COVID-19. Virus diagnoses are sprouting up all over the world, and one country after another announces lockdown. People are urged to remain home — in some countries, they are forced to do so.

Rome is in a state of emergency. Here in the heart of the Church, public Masses are forbidden, liturgical events are canceled, and Italian citizens are quarantined.

The shocker for countless people: even the celebrations of the Easter Triduum, the most sacred and solemn festivity of the Church, will happen behind closed doors; no lay person will be able to participate.

In this unprecedented event, potentially for the first time since the Resurrection of Our Lord, there will not be a single public Mass in the heart of the Church celebrating His death and resurrection. Are these signs of the end times? Perhaps.

The Catholic world reacted quickly: countless Masses are live-streamed (ordinary and extraordinary form) on television, Facebook, and other media platforms; prayer groups have been founded among friends and strangers alike online; and parishes have found most creative ways to stay in touch despite being under “house arrest.”

As a Catholic, experiencing this ongoing crisis has been disenchanting in many ways. In a season designed to foster faith and hope, this event has brought out disillusionment.

Disillusionment about governments and their ever-increasing stranglehold on the individual. The measures taken (at least in Italy and possibly elsewhere) are not designed to nurture and sustain virtue, but are blind “one size fits all” measures bogging down the
individual and whole economies.

Disillusionment with the health care system: it was not ready for a real public health threat of this magnitude. Too long have non-essential procedures been pushed and highlighted: abortion, euthanasia, and other “services” have sucked up resources and manpower that would have been better and more prudently used to prepare for emergencies of the sort we are experiencing now. The most morbid and demonic aspect of the situation: abortions are still available as “emergency procedures.”

Disillusionment with globalism. For once, millions are realizing the fateful truth: “No-border” policies have brought receiving countries to their knees. Even in good times they were strained.

Now, when an emergency arises, no one is suitably prepared, and suddenly “borders” and “limits” gain back their true importance in the consciousness of the people. It has also become tangible how the irresponsible behavior of a totalitarian regime, such as China, can
indeed very quickly have an effect on each one of us. Why trust them in peace times when we cannot trust them in times of crisis?

Disillusionment, finally, with the Church as a voice in society: When times are dire, she, too, seems to hide from peril — however grave — despite her knowledge that this sickness can only befall the body, not the soul. What a tragedy to see priests with large face masks and gloves hustling through the streets of Rome minding their own business — should not they be the beacons of light and hope?

Surely some saints are caring for the sick in this moment. We owe gratitude especially to more than a dozen priests who have already died from exposure to the virus victims.

But where is the united voice of hope that the Church ought to proclaim? Why do we not hear her voice of hope for a godless society?

Yet, a sign of hope remains: on March 16th Pope Francis walked through the streets of Rome! Privately — and surrounded by his security guards — the Pope went on foot to the “San Marcello al Corso” Church to pray before the “Pestilence Crucifix.”

On display in a side chapel, the large wooden Crucifixs was carried through the streets of Rome in 1522 in order to fight off the plague which had infested the capital.

Francis also halted in St. Mary Major to pray before the famous icon, Salus Populi Romani, one of Rome’s most precious and beloved icons of the Virgin Mary, petitioning that the plague that is COVID-19 will soon cease to spread.

On March 19th the Apostolic Penitentiary published a letter granting a plenary indulgence to all those who have contracted the virus and have been trying to fulfill the common conditions from home.

There is a sapling of spiritual health and regrowth.

When all this has blown over — and it will — may we all remember the personal suffering we had to endure, each in our own way, and mend our lives according to the lessons we can take away from it.

Lent is a time for reform, reflection, and repentance — and this year we are all in it, whether we like it or not. Let us rejoice in the Lord through this time of trial.

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