The death toll is so high in Bergamo’s diocese alone that bodies are being stored in churches, which are closed to the public as part of a national lockdown on everything with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies. As a result, gatherings that include weddings, baptisms and funerals are also banned.
In nearby Cremona, the town’s bishop, Antonio Napolioni, 62, was hospitalized for the 10 days with respiratory problems after contracting COVID-19. He is now recovering at home and under quarantine.
This past Sunday, Pope Francis blessed an empty St. Peter’s Square, while praising priests who had found creative ways to reach out to people. The 83-year-old pope fell ill with a cold at the start of Lent as the outbreak in Italy began. He later tested negative for COVID-19.
“I want to pray for all of the priests, the creativity of priests who think of a thousand ways to be with the people so that the people don’t feel alone,” he said.
The pontiff, who left the Vatican and walked the empty streets of Rome this past Sunday to pray at two local churches, had previously called on priests to summon the courage to visit people sickened by the coronavirus.
In Texas, Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth said while Masses are to be celebrated without a congregation, he urged priests starting on Thursday to distribute communion “outside of church in designated spaces after Mass for those who are present in their cars or separated by a safe distance.”
“After consultation with my priests and civic officials at local and state levels, and in cooperating with them for the good of society, I am informing you that Mass will continue to be celebrated at the scheduled times throughout the territory of the Diocese of Fort Worth, but without a congregation physically present in the church,” he said.
In New York, the archdiocese, the second-largest in the country that includes 2.8 million Catholics behind only Los Angeles, has closed schools and public Masses suspended. Nonetheless, Priests and deacons remain on duty for anyone who wants to visit churches for private prayer during Lent. Hospital chaplains across the country are at the ready should the numbers increase dramatically like in Europe.
Catholic volunteer groups have filled the void in some cases when it comes to delivering food and offers the elderly other comforts. The spiritual needs of these people is something lay people aren’t prepared to do. Nonetheless, Beschi said the virus will forever alter how we behave and feel when it comes to community.
Beschi told Vatican News that the world has forever been changed as a result of the contagion.
“In recent years, we have condemned ourselves to a kind of self-isolation,” Beschi said. “Everyone thought for himself. In this moment that we live the imposed isolation, we realize how much sharing is necessary. I hope this is something that stays with us.”
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.