ROMA – In his book Black DeathThe British historian Philip Zeigler said that the British priest did not come out of the 14 devastatingth plague of the century that claims a third of Europe’s population is in very good condition.
For one thing, with the death rate being higher than the general population, the ranks of clergy were so thin that standards after that dropped significantly. More fundamentally, Ziegler said it was a half-hearted behavior by the English priests at the height of the disease that made them proud.
“The picture formed is of a priest who does his daily work but is reluctant and a little afraid, thus posing the worst danger but losing the respect he should have received,” Ziegler wrote. “Add to this some well-known examples of priests who left their flocks … and some ideas can be formed about why the established Church arose from the Black Death with so little praise.”
That little historical perspective begs the question: How will Catholic religious leaders emerge from the coronavirus pandemic?
Will they enjoy increasing respect for standing by their people in the dark, perhaps regaining some of what was lost due to the sexual harassment scandal? Or, will the impression be that the pastor is largely invisible during the crisis while heavy appointments are made by doctors, nurses, police, and others?
It is undoubtedly too early to say, but at least in Italy, which for a long time was the zero point of a pandemic, the initial understanding was that most scholars broke free quite well and might be remembered as one of the heroes.
It is surprising that to date, the number of deaths between Italian doctors and Italian priests is very similar: 107 doctors and 100 priests on Saturday. Four priests have died during Holy Week as of this writing, including priests in the Italian cities of Pesaro, Como, Parma and Fidenza. 25 amazing priests have died in the Diocese of Bergamo alone, one of the worst-hit regions in Italy, representing three percent of its total presbyterate.
An Italian news agency defines the missing persons list as “River Spoon of the Priests,” a reference to the famous epitaph anthology of the Edgar Lee Masters.
Indeed, many of these priests are elderly and at high risk of corona virus, and a number have retired. However, like Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, observed, “most die from infections because they remain with their people rather than thinking about their own safety.”
Father Marcello Balducci from Pesaro, for example, is 61 years old, and has been ill for some time. Despite the risks, he continued to help at the local cathedral, responding to people who came for spiritual guidance or material assistance, until he contracted the virus and surrendered. In Cremona, Father Mario Cavalleri died at the ripe age of 104, still involved with a facility known as Casetta, a welcome center for the poor, alcoholics and drug addicts and refugees.
Sifting through stories of the dead, Avvenire identify five general qualities.
- Root: In communities large and small, “priests are guardians of shared memory, participating in the transmission of testimony and values from one generation to the next.”
- Loyalty: “Many of these priests have served their community for forty years or more.”
- Modesty: Many of the 100 priests who have died “are only known to the parish and their local community, although some have regional or national profiles.”
- Is indispensable: Again and again, Avvenire write, someone hears after the death of a priest that someone is missing “who is always dear, close, available.”
Indeed, that is the official home organ of Italian bishops who speak, but they are unlikely to publish such a set of statements if at least a portion of the population will not recognize them as legitimate.
On Saturday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte voiced his thanks.
“The Italian Church, in these very difficult weeks, has accompanied the suffering of our people with its concrete presence throughout the country, contributing to supporting the weakest among us and our families in poverty,” he said.
On White Thursday, Pope Francis also voiced his gratitude to ordinary priests, describing them with doctors and nurses as “saints next to” from coronaviruses.
Apart from the suspension of the Mass, confession, funeral and other elements of the routine of Catholic life, priests here get credit for finding creative ways to make themselves available. In Pescara, for example, Father Cristiano Marcucci of the Blessed Virgin Mary Visitation Church created a Youtube channel for parishioners (and anyone) to participate in daily activities, including saying morning prayers. La RepubblicaThe most read daily newspaper in Italy, recently brought a photo of Marcucci sitting alone in his empty parish church when he prayed, only with a beam of light framing him in the dark.
The stock of priests in Italy is helped by the fact that there is a time-honored script here which is generally about simple parish priests, Parroci, as a good person, as opposed to Vescovi, meaning bishops, and Monsignoriwhich, in a street argument, means an air priest. It is also helped by the fact that there is no local media in the world that pays more attention to the Catholic Church than the Italian Church, so that good and bad are magnified.
There is also a proud tradition in Italian literature to celebrate the contributions of priests during times of crisis, the most famous of the most respected novels in Italy of all time, I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni.
The point is this: As the pandemic rises, priests here may enjoy an increase in respect and credibility, rooted in the feeling that they fully share in the suffering of the nation.
The really interesting question then becomes, “How will they spend that social capital?” However, that is the story for “after” this crisis, not now.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.
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