Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore --
Europe’ first country to be dramatically hit with the Cronavirus was Italy which went into lockdown early-March. People could not leave their regions separating families – or even their homes. In Rome, like other parts of Italy, movement was only possible with a self-declaration form justifying reasons for going outdoors. Medicine, groceries, walking a dog were permitted. Government emergency acts meant Churches cancelled liturgical services and shockingly even the city of Rome fell into dead silence. As the world watched Italy from their screens, a mysterious virus would spread across soon implementing Italy’s lockdown laws.
On Friday March 27th, Pope Francis addressed the world from Rome, and held Eucharistic Adoration at St. Peter’s under the portico facing an empty rainy square. The surreal image was experienced for those who prayed with the Pope live-stream.
What about the Sacraments in the eternal city? Interdictions came from the Italian government with State of Emergency measures beginning in March. The closure of Churches which was determined by Bishops was controversial. When Cardinal Angelo De Donatis the Cardinal Vicar of Rome executed the order to close all of Rome’s Churches, Catholics reacted bitterly to the Cardinal's decision on social media -- a city not only with parishes, but shrines, monasteries, and religious institutes. Papal intervention offered hope some Churches would remain open, unlike the De Donatis decree where all Churches were to be closed.
At Santa Maria Maggiore Confessions has continued throughout the pandemic. How is that possible to go to a Church if self-declaration form permitted going outdoors only for food, medicine, and walking dogs? Well, people who were going out for essential services could continue their walk to another unofficial essential service: Confession.
Santa Maria Maggiore uses benches where people can sit two metres apart. Hand sanitizer at the entrance of the Basilica and the papal workers regularly santise the benches. The priests come down the aisle to give Communion as opposed to the people lining up for Communion. Eucharistic Adoration continues as well as the Rosary. As long as people have masks on and keep social distance, they may enter the Basilica.
What is surprising is the number of people who still go to Confession since this now excludes the large number of tourists coming from the US, Brazil and India with sizable Roman Catholic populations. So, the visitors/pilgrims are limited to Europe, the approved 14 nations, and of course, different regions of Italy. The temporary residents of Rome are made up of seminarians, religious, and priests, either studying or providing temporary ministry before they return to their countries of origin.
Rome is where people go to Confession as often as weekly if they live in Rome, but those coming from outside will come to Confession in Rome as part of a pilgrimage, a new start or even as a time of conversion. Santa Maria Maggiore, like all Papal Basilicas receiving pilgrims and visitors, is protected by the Italian Army, the Italian Police, and the Carabinieri, all at the entrance of the Basilica. Coming to Santa Maria Maggiore for the pilgrim means making that physical effort of journey that requires effort, time, and staying in Rome is also be costly. But this reflects the disposition of the heart: the sinner is contrite, seeks forgiveness, wants to make amends, and is given penance and absolution. Human nature needs to concretely express contrition.
This is why Roman Catholicism drawing from human nature is not couch potato spirituality. Human desire and supernatural grace get us off the couch and onto our knees to ask God for mercy. When a lock down has kept us from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this mercy -- the experience of forgiveness and renewal -- we discover is truly what purifies our soul, heart and mind.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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