Today, May 18, is a very good day, indeed. It is a heroic day for the Italian Catholic Church on the 100th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s birth. There could not be a better birthday gift from a saint who, fluent in 13 languages, was a veritable Paraclete-on-earth. He spoke courageously and often, raising his voice against persecution of religious freedom. He did so not just in his native communist Poland, but throughout the entire secularized world.
By the beginning of the 1990s, John Paul II and his allies had won the war on religious freedom when atheistic, Marxist regimes fell across Eastern Europe. But fast-forward 30 years, and the same battle has sprung right back up unexpectedly in the name of preserving public health during a pandemic.
John Paul II’s spirit dwells among us
After over two and half months of ardent appeals, fines, police raids, and civil disobedience by the faithful and pastors alike during the COVID-19 lockdown, public Masses have finally resumed–at least in Italy. In these days of personal trial, the spirit of St. John Paul II has dwelt among us. His words echoed in our troubled hearts, as we remember him exhorting leaders at the height of the Cold War in his 1988 World Day of Peace Message:
Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society, as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual. It follows that the freedom of individuals and communities to profess and practice their religion is an essential element for peaceful human coexistence. … The civil and social right to religious freedom, inasmuch as it touches the most intimate sphere of the spirit, is a point of reference for the other fundamental rights and in some way becomes a measure of them.
Moreover, every violation of religious freedom, whether open or hidden, does fundamental damage to the cause of peace, like violations of the other fundamental rights of the human person. Forty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to be commemorated next December, we have to admit that millions of people in various parts of the world are still suffering for their religious convictions: They are victims of repressive and oppressive legislation, victims sometimes of open persecution, but more often of subtle forms of discrimination aimed at believers and communities. This state of affairs, in itself intolerable, is also a bad omen for peace.
The tension between the Italian government and the nation’s Catholic bishops has reached that same boiling point as they did in 1988, if not higher. As proof, hear this video tirade by outspoken Bishop Giovanni D’Ercole of Ascoli Piceno. In his very strong language of a few weeks ago, D’Ercole slammed the Italian government for not reopening churches sooner. He insisted houses of worship were “places of hope” and that the Church wanted “no more favors” from the state but only their natural rights back.
Last May 4, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a gradual reopening of Italy with no mention of resuming church services in his government’s Fase Due (Phase 2) objectives, thus reneging on his promises. The Italian bishops fumed in unison. They now all stood together with righteous indignity. They no longer wanted to be known to the world as submissive “good and faithful servants” of a secular state administration that no longer viewed the sacraments as “essential” to health, even if suicides in Italy had begun to spike due to ongoing spiritual despair.
Three days later, on May 7, an historic agreement was reached. As Associated Press vaticanista Philip Pullella reported:
Tensions ran high again late last month when the government announced a gradual staged easing of the lockdown but did not include a return to Masses in a phase that began on May 4. The bishops told the government they could “not accept seeing the exercise of freedom of religion being compromised.” … With Thursday’s [May 7] agreement, Masses for the public can resume on May 18 but under strict conditions outlined in a protocol signed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Bishops Conference.
Any further delays in reopening Italian churches for public worship would surely have led to the revolt of both clerics and laity against the state. Creative solutions to avoid spreading the contagion between the faithful, as with parking lot celebrations in the United States, were not practical in Italy nor in line with Italy’s cultural mores. Religious processions, from Naples to Milan, had been halted immediately or interrupted by police for reasons of “illegal assembly.” Streamed worship services were a popular substitute at first, but parents had quickly grown weary of their children misbehaving and generally being distracted in the non-consecrated space of their living rooms, prompting some websites to give tips for keeping children attentive during online Masses.
First Mass: Witness from the JP II Generation
This morning, an 8 a.m. service was the first Mass I attended in 71 days–70 days too many for a man born and raised in the “JP II Generation.” I had fought for this long-awaited day. I voiced my opinions clearly and without fear, just like the Great Communicator from Poland had asked, in order to return and assemble in worship.
At Mass, I was one of roughly 50 people present, triple the usual attendance for a Monday service. I was accompanied by pangs of “guilty privilege,” knowing millions of Catholics, and billions believers of other religious backgrounds, remained shut out of their churches. Constitutions that normally enshrine and protect a citizen’s God-given religious liberty have been largely ignored by politicians.
Today, I witnessed how the Italian state and Roman Catholic Church could work together. It wasn’t a perfect union, nor was I in agreement with all the health directives, but I was respectful and overjoyed to be in the house of Christ again.
Passing through the main entrance, I was motioned with a finger-wag that I had done something wrong. I was unaware I had to enter now through a side door. The reason? At this secondary entrance was my parish’s hand sanitizing station. There must have been signs redirecting me, but I was too eager and my faith-filled mind had become numb reading the fine details of so many avvisi pubblici over the last three months.
The parish monitor insisted again about something else. She kept gesturing to me but couldn’t vocalize her concern through a tightly fitted face mask. Then she mimed lathering her hands, which I immediately understood to mean I needed to wash my own hands. However, I had already done so three times that morning. A fellow parishioner turned around and mercifully squeezed some gel onto my digits, which I rubbed to the count of 20.
I was given the nod (presumably with a smile behind the lady’s mask) and was pointed to my seat.
Another public health misstep I made was sitting in the middle of an empty pew. Again, my focus was so intense on the tabernacle and opening prayers that I hadn’t noticed the white squares scotch-taped on the top armrests of each pew, exactly three meters apart and two per bench. I was motioned to move to the end of the pew. I happily complied, scooting over another meter to social distance from my brothers and sisters in Christ.
We kept our face masks on for the duration of the service. That much I conformed to intuitively after three months of restrained human contact. With masks on, the responses and hymns were “muffled” to say the least.
There was no exchange of peace, nor did the priest even pronounce the sacred words “now let us offer a sign” but moved on speedily to the Agnus Dei following the Our Father. Faithful turned around anyway to wave a little ciao and nod at one other. No one tried to shake hands, kiss, or hug. This is still a social distancing “no-no” in the land of baci e abbracci.
The big change was Communion. The priest, before distributing, washed his hands thoroughly with sanitizer and put on his white surgical mask. Then something happened that I have never seen in Italy: Each pew emptied out one row at a time, from the top to the bottom of the church’s nave. It was a perfect imitation of the military order of Communion lines conducted in my native United States. Usually, it is an experience like the streets of Mumbai, where traffic is squeezed onto an avenue from every odd direction simultaneously to create one huge bottleneck. Not so, today!
At the conclusion of Mass, many, like me, stayed for some private prayer and contemplation in our own house of worship. After 10 minutes, an announcement was made that the church would have to be closed for re-sanitizing. Faithful would have to go out the main doors (the same I had mistakenly entered). Some stayed a few more minutes in quiet disobedience to authorities, yet in peaceful obedience to the One Almighty Authority.
As we exited, no one spoke to another, and we went out about our solitary domestic routines. It was a good, new beginning. Above all, it was a rarest of gifts on a great saint’s 100th birthday. John Paul II was certainly smiling in Heaven above. Buon compleanno, San Giovanni Paolo!
(Photo credit: Michael Severance)