ROME: “The Mass is ended, all go in peace.” The Rev. Vincenzo Latino finishes the service in his convent in the center of Rome, kisses the altar and bows to a 15th-century crucifix before leaving the chapel and changing out of his liturgical robes.
“But who is ‘all’? Look at this, there is nobody here,” the 69-year-old Roman Catholic priest told Arab News while surveying the empty church, now silent amid Italy’s crippling coronavirus outbreak.
“There is nobody in any church nationwide, it’s worse than at wartime,” he added.
Roman Catholic churches in Italy, along with other places of worship, have been closed for the past 20 days following a government-enforced lockdown that means people can leave their homes only for necessities.
Mass is no longer celebrated and funerals are forbidden. Priests are only allowed to bless the coffins at the cemetery with no relatives present.
Like everyone else in Italy, priests stay in their houses with little, if any, personal contact with people. Some are turning to new technology to reach the faithful. Services are now broadcast via social media and even Pope Francis, the head of the church, offers prayers on television.
“That’s the way to provide comfort, even though this way we cannot reach the elderly, who have no idea of what a video chat can be,” said Latino.
Meanwhile, priests are the “professional group” paying the highest toll amid Italy’s lethal coronavirus outbreak, figures show.
According to Avvenire, the Italian Episcopal Conference daily newspaper, 74 Italian priests have died from coronavirus infection since the pandemic reached the country compared with 51 doctors.
Most of the clerical victims of the infection were elderly, aged in their late 70s or early 80s. But the youngest victim listed by the Catholic Church-affiliated newspaper was just 53.
More than 20 victims were recorded in the Bergamo diocese in the north of the country, the center of the outbreak and close to the financial hub of Milan.
“Priests get sick and die like everybody else, maybe even more than the rest,” said the Rev. Gaetano Chirico, 69, a professor of theology at the Vatican University.
Chirico knew two of the priests who fell victim to the pandemic in Bergamo. “They were friends. We used to meet each other often for ceremonies, conferences and retreats in the area, where there are lots of convents and meditation houses,” he told Arab News.
“Italian priests have always been in the midst of people, on a mission, but first of all because of the popular nature of our clergy,” he said.
“Priests shake hands, embrace people, dine with people, they are like shepherds — their flocks must feel them, see them, touch them. That is why it is inevitable to find priests topping the list of victims in this frightening epidemic.
“What makes the situation worse is that the average age of the Italian clergy is quite high, and the elderly are most vulnerable to the infection.”
Chirico, along with many churchgoers in Milan, is mourning Giancarlo Quadri, 75, who dedicated his priesthood to helping migrants, first those from the south of Italy, then Italians moving abroad, and more recently those who came from other countries and continents, with different religions and cultures.
Franco Carnevali, who died aged 68, was also active with Islamic immigrant communities in Brianza in northwest Lombardy.
“He was a decisive figure in establishing a relationship between the local municipal administration and the Islamic community,” Chirico explained. “He offered Muslims in the city not only opportunities for discussion but also places for prayer and worship.”
As the deadly pandemic continues to take a toll, Vincenzo said: “It is very sad. But there is not much we can do. All those brothers got infected before we were told to take precautions and asked to close our churches. So the damage is done. Now let’s pray that the infection is defeated soon.”
He regrets being unable to say mass in public, and “not being able to offer a smile, a good word in person to people who would need it more than ever in this difficult time.”
Some priests have come up with innovative ways of showing their faith. Don Giovanni took a statue of the Virgin Mary from his church near Naples, loaded it on the roof of his car and drove around his village for hours, saying prayers over a loudspeaker.
“A procession without people, to pray to God to stop this disgrace soon,” he told a local TV station. “People hear me and they pray with me.”
Pope Francis is at risk, too. However, the 83-year-old has continued his activities, meeting with hundreds of people. The pope has been twice tested for coronavirus after a priest working in the Vatican and living in the Santa Marta guesthouse, where the pontiff also lives, tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized.
But the church leader refuses to give up. Last week, he went to pray in front of a crucifix kept in a church in the center of Rome, which is said to have saved the city from the plague in the 16th century. He later had that crucifix transported to St. Peter’s Basilica for a collective moment of prayer against the pandemic.