POSTSCRIPT / March 15, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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What to do when COVID hits Rome?

CATHOLIC churches in Rome have been closed until April 3 to stem the spread of a coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has killed at least 1,200 people across Italy. The Holy See itself has recorded one person infected.

The churches could reopen when the Italian government lifts its ban on public gatherings early next month. It was not clear why the restrictions covered the Vatican when it is a sovereign city-state apart from Italy.

Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the papal vicar for Rome, said the Church has exempted Catholics in the city from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. All masses, weddings and funerals have also been suspended.

Pope Francis has complained of feeling “caged” reading his Sunday Angelus prayer into a camera from a library instead of his usual window overlooking Saint Peter’s Square. He also misses his Wednesday appearance on the square where he can interact with pilgrims.

What to do when a plague hits Rome? We got a hint of an answer from a light posting on Twitter of @DrJulesGomes, Rome correspondent for Church Militant and editor of Rebel Priest. He tweeted:

“Until noon, I could walk into any church in Rome. Now the Diocese of Rome is closing all churches! They say ‘this is not because the state requires it, but out of a sense of belonging to the human family, exposed to a virus whose nature and propagation we do not yet know.’”

He shared a “letter” to Pope Francis sent from high up by Saint Gregory the Great, who was Pope from Sept. 3, 590, to March 12, 604 AD. Excerpts from the missive:

Forgive me plagiarizing the title of your apostolic exhortation! But Heaven abounds not in leaden lugubriousness but in good humor, and the angelic choirs have their bouts of celestial chuckling especially when it comes to Borgia jokes.

Do also accept my apologies for writing to you in this most unconventional manner. You already have one earthly pope emeritus whose writings spark media controversy, and I’m sure you could do without the writings of a heavenly pope emeritus — particularly a pope with the prefix “Saint” and the suffix “Great” appended to his name.

Moreover, we are both successors of the Rock on which Our Lord built His Church and it was the first bishop of Rome himself who suggested I write to you.

St. Petrus’ exact words to me: “Tell Francis, the pope is mightier than the plague. Encourage Francis by telling him how you dealt with the plague.”

Carissimo Francesco, you know I had to deal with a plague far more pestilential than the coronavirus. The plague struck even my predecessor, Pope Pelagius II, and swiftly killed him.

I learned my lesson from two bishops. When the plague first surfaced in Gaul in 543, Bp. Gallus of Clermont asked God to spare his diocese and the angel of the Lord came to him in a vision to assure him that his prayers would protect his people. Gallus continued to lead his people in prayer, pilgrimage and the sacraments and not one of them at Clermont died of the plague.

But then the plague returned to Clermont in 571. Bishop Cautinus behaved very differently from his predecessor and scurried from one place to another to avoid the plague. So many people were killed in the whole region that it was not even possible to count them.

A couple of decades later, incessant rains caused the Tiber to flood much of Rome, destroying many churches and even the papal granaries.

In 589, the flooding brought with it a plague, which caused swellings in the groin and in other delicate places a swelling of the glands accompanied by intense fever. The victim died on the third day. If the patient survived beyond the third day, he had some hope of recovering.

People were dying so suddenly that there was no time for them to repent and put their lives into a state of grace. One day, in a single solemn procession, 80 people fell dead on the ground.

I admired Bp. Gallus for his faith and courage and I despised Bp. Cautinus for his unbelief and cowardice. So, when they made me pope in 590, I called for three days of fasting and prayer and processions from seven major churches, all directed towards Santa Maria Maggiore.

I also authorized a seven-fold litany to be offered for the cessation of the plague. I did this so that “there we may at great length make our supplication to the Lord with tears and groans, and thus be held worthy to win pardon for our sins.”

My actions were the result of my belief in divine punishment — so unlike your cardinals Scola and Bassetti shooting their mouths off to La Repubblica and denying the reality of divine punishment! I’m sure you would never do something like this, now, would you, Francis?

My papacy was predicated on a belief in a God who intervenes in history, a God who loves us so much that He wants us to repent and turn to Him and will sometimes use pain as his megaphone to shout out to a deaf world.

After much prayer, repentance and fasting, God gave me a vision. I saw, just above the castle that used to be called Hadrian’s Tomb, the angel of the Lord wiping a bloody sword and sheathing it. I understood that our prayers had been answered and that the plague was over.

Beloved Francis, do take a short walk from Casa Santa Marta just down the road to Castel Sant’Angelo and pause to look at the huge 18th-century bronze statue on top of the castle of the archangel St. Michael sheathing his sword and you will be reminded of God’s mercy and of my role as your predecessor in securing it.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 15, 2020)

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