PROVIDENCE — Late on Monday, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte took the extra ordinary step of putting the entire nation on lockdown — imposing travel restrictions and a ban on public gatherings — in an effort to stem the fast-spreading coronavirus, until April 3.
After China, where the COVID-19 strain is believed to have originated, Italy has marked the second highest total of citizens succumbing to the disease, with the Italian Civil Protection Agency reporting 631 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Vatican, on Tuesday, closed St. Peter’s Square and Basilica to tourists through April 3. The city state, the world’s smallest country, reported the first case of COVID-19 among its own residents last week.
In an interview with Rhode Island Catholic on Sunday, March 8, Father Christopher Mahar, a priest of the Diocese of Providence who is currently serving as an official with the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, reported that the general mood in Rome was one of caution, but not panic.
“Several of us here were planning on running a half marathon today, but it was cancelled a few days ago,” Father Mahar said.
“I was out running early this morning with a priest from the Vatican and we saw other people also running. Talking with them, many of them had also planned to run the race, but like us were out anyway to make the most of the situation. We prayed the rosary while running our own half marathon, asking for Our Lady’s intercession for those here who are suffering the most.”
In an interview with Rhode Island Catholic last week, Father Mahar spoke of how his work had taken him to a conference about four weeks ago with a group on artificial intelligence and its impact on education in Milan, in northern Italy, the region of the country where the disease has since spread among the population the fastest.
“At the time it was relatively mild in Italy and there was more concern for the people in China,” he reported.
As part of the shutdown, all colleges and universities have been ordered to close to prevent further spread of the virus.
Patrick Ryan, a seminarian from the Diocese of Providence in formation for the priesthood at Pontifical North American College, which overlooks Vatican City from a nearby hilltop, said in an interview Sunday that it remains to be seen how the new restrictions on the population will affect day to day life.
“It will at least mean an early end to the annual Lenten station church pilgrimage, wherein we visit a different historic church each day during Lent for a morning Mass,” said Ryan, who grew up in Coventry and graduated from Coventry High School in 2012.
He then went on to Boston University, which he graduated from in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science degree. It was in college that he began to seriously consider pursuing a vocation to the priesthood.
Ryan said that as the climate in Rome is much warmer than it is in northern Italy, where most of the deaths from COVID-19 have taken place, it may be spared from the more serious cases of the illness, which has exacted a brutal toll on the elderly population, especially those with underling health conditions.
“The warmer weather should help us in avoiding a significant outbreak,” he said.
“Our accommodations at the North American College are also ideal for this sort of situation. We have our dorms, classrooms, athletic fields, a gym, rooftop terraces and plenty of food, so it wouldn’t be a bad place to be stuck even if things got much worse and we had to be quarantined in the seminary.”
Ryan said that in the meantime, seminarians continue to pray, study, keep active on the school’s recreation fields and make the most of a situation that is unexpected, but not dire at this time for them.
“We hope and pray for those for whom this virus poses a significant threat, whether to their health or their livelihood,” he said. “Hopefully Rome, and all affected areas, will be back to normal soon.”
Meanwhile, across the Tiber River in Rome at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Dean of the School of Church Communications Daniel Arasa told Rhode Island Catholic on Sunday that as of then, the school had no news of any of its students being infected with the coronavirus, and that the university was scheduled to begin online only classes on March 9 to prevent the spread of any infection.
“The IT department of the university has set up the digital platform already existing to facilitate the work to all the professors and students as a way not to miss classes during this period,” Arasa said.
“Despite the difficulties, we think this adversity will be an opportunity to improve and grow as an academic institution in developing ways of teaching much convenient in today’s global environment.”
The dean said that residents must be ever mindful to limit contact when greeting one another in order to prevent the transmission of the disease.
“Certainly, at a personal level, the coronavirus is changing our regular habitudes and lifestyle,” Arasa said. “Mediterranean and Latino people belong to a very friendly and ‘touchy’ culture of embraces, so we have to constrain ourselves in our greetings and ways of showing our affection. But this is understandable.”
In Vicenza, northern Italy, where she lives, Liz Hobby, who has relatives in Rhode Island, shared with Rhode Island Catholic the ominous feeling she and others there have been experiencing as the health crisis has expanded and towns began to be closed down early last week as the virus spread there like wildfire.
“The red, yellow and green zones have now been replaced,” Hobby said of her area on Sunday, the day before the whole of Italy became a Red Zone.
“Now, by order of President Conte, there is an orange zone, total lockdown and nobody can go in or out. So far, our province of Veneto is not under lock down, but who knows when ... my city, Vicenza, is just under the “T” in the word “Veneto,” she said with a sense of foreboding of what is to come.