*** DEBUG END ***

‘The silence is quite absolute. No sounds of traffic. No voices. No footsteps. Not even a dog barking’

24 March 2020

Chaplains in Italy praise calm spirit of people despite fear


A hospital chapel has become a chapel of rest with many coffins, in Cremona, northern Italy

A hospital chapel has become a chapel of rest with many coffins, in Cremona, northern Italy

ANGLICAN chaplains in Italy, the country with the most deaths from the coronavirus, have described the eeriness of life under a lockdown, and have offered advice to clergy in the UK who are beginning to consider how to minister under similar conditions.

Since 10 March, restrictions have been extended to all of Italy, and all churches, schools, universities, museums, cinemas, and swimming pools have been closed. On 7 March, the Italian Catholic Bishops’ Conference announced that all public masses and liturgical celebrations, including funerals, would be suspended until 3 April.

Last week, outdoor activities were banned and factories were closed, barring essential production. The number who have died — 6077 as of Monday — is now higher than that recorded in any other country. On Saturday, 624 people died in 24 hours. In Lombardy, the epicentre of the crisis, doctors have had to make difficult decisions about whom to treat in a health system overwhelmed by demand. Last Wednesday, the army was brought in to move coffins from a cemetery in the town of Bergamo to neighbouring cities. Traditional funerals are banned: just a few people may attend prayers said by priests at burials.

The newspaper owned by the Bishops’ Conference, Avvenire, reports that 51 priests have died after contracting the virus. On Monday, it was reported that Fr Giuseppe Berardelli, in Casnigo, a small village north-east of Milan, had died, aged 72, after donating his respirator, bought for him by parishioners, to a younger coronavirus patient. In Rome, 59 Sisters living in two convents in Rome have tested positive for the virus.

The Anglican Chaplain of St Mark’s, Florence, the Revd William Lister, spoke on Tuesday of “uncharted territory” that was like nothing he could recall in his lifetime, including 17 years as an army chaplain. “This is almost like total mobilisation.”

Reports of the strain on health services, and access to intensive-care equipment, had been a cause of “major worry”, he confirmed. “Living with fear, which many are, is actually an incredibly difficult situation to get your head around.” He was spending much of his time conducting ministry by phone, and was “trying to keep people from feeling too depressed”. Many in the worshipping community were elderly. “It is very, very difficult for people — a lot of people feeling very isolated and worried. Trying to reassure people is the big thing. I think as a Church we must provide a sense of hope. . . If the Church stands for anything, it’s a better place, some kind of recreation, something new.”

But lessons could be learned from Italians’s response, he suggested: “Although they are worried, they have remained very calm, very collected. There has been no panic buying of any kind. . . In a sense, it has brought Italy together in a way that few others things could.”

The lockdown had revealed “how much we value being able to keep in touch with each other”, and social media were a lifeline for many. “In a tiny way, it’s a bit like Terry Waite being incarcerated in solitary confinement, and it’s important to keep praying.” Another positive outcome had been “unprecedented co-operation” between Churches: “The Universal Church has actually become more visible. And that is a joy to see.”

Amid bleak reports from the health service in Lombardy, and warnings that the NHS could be similarly overwhelmed, the Chaplain of All Saints’, Milan, Canon Vickie Sims, praised the Italian health service: “All of my experience with doctors and medical services in Italy is that it’s a very compassionate service, and not run with any cynicism about the value of human life.”

Pamela Gowman, a worshipper at St Leonard’s, Assisi, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, said that the hospital system had been “fantastic: I can’t praise it enough, the way I have been treated”. She praised the church, which, without a regular priest, had been served by a stream of visiting clergy, who had kept in touch throughout the crisis. “We have been inundated with thoughts and prayers”.

Speaking from her home just outside Milan, Canon Sims said that her impression was that people were being “quite stoic”. Her congregation had kept in touch by email, Facebook, and WhatsApp, and had demonstrated “a wonderful capacity to calm each other”. But she suspected that one of the longer-term effects of the lockdown would be a continued “diffidence about being close to other people: people will need to learn again to be close together, not to back up as soon as someone walks towards you”.

PAThe church of Holy Trinity Convent, Serina, Bergamo, where the bodies are being received before burial

Questions were also being asked about the balance between the the curtailment of freedom and the public good, she said. “When we are being told to sacrifice personal liberties for the common good, how far can we go in asking that, and in enforcing that; and how do we guard democracy and freedoms, so that the militarisation of daily life does not become the new normal?”

This was a question for all democracies in the Western world, she said. “Countries that are very authoritarian can approach things in a different way. We are wanting to be co-operative, obedient, helpful, and at the same time not give away our capacity for reason, to reflect and offer our opinion. . . We are all praying and hoping our leaders are deeply thoughtful and aware of all of the implications of what they are doing.”

A statistical glimmer of hope appeared on Monday, when the number of deaths in Italy had smallest increase, 602, for four days. “We are very cautiously optimistic that this might be a truly hopeful sign,” the Revd Russell Ruffino, the interim priest of Holy Cross, Palermo, said.

Sicily had closed its borders last week, but, already, 30,000 Italians had travelled south in an attempt to escape the growth of the virus. He was “quite surprised” that Sicilians were observing the local lockdown, as they were “not especially known for following the rules of the authorities”.

A trip to the grocery shop could take as long as two hours. “At the door, there is a uniformed guard who gives you a number and you may enter . . . only a few at a time, and disposable plastic gloves are given to you as you enter. There do not seem to be any shortages, and there is no sign of any hoarding.”

Church services had stopped on 8 March, but each week he prepared a sermon sent out by email in both English and Italian. It was the silence that struck him most, he said.

“The silence is quite absolute. No sounds of traffic. No voices. No footsteps. Not even a dog barking. As I sit here now, I hear absolutely not a sound. It is downright eerie. Frankly, I think if anyone has not experienced such absolute silence, it is impossible to share what it is like.”

The Chaplain of St George’s, Venice, with Trieste, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, noted that the word “quarantine” had originated in the city: “During the days when Venice was at the height of her power, merchant ships from across the Mediterranean had to dock at a particular island for 40 days to ensure they were not carrying threatening diseases into the centre of the city. . .

“The continuous sound of the wheels of travelling cases on the move has ended. Church bells calling the faithful to mass, very much part of the cacophony of daily Venice, have fallen silent. Only the chimes from St Mark’s Square eerily mark out the midnight hour and the passing of another day.”

The church had been closed since 25 February, and plans were under way to provide a short online eucharist using the video communication app Zoom. But “community spirit” was being kept alive by “a chatty, online round robin, in which people exchange something of their life behind closed doors and pass on details of relevant information”. There was as yet no sign of any lifting of the restrictions, he said: “Holy Week and Easter will prove to be very strange.”

The Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome, the Revd Robert Warren, said on Monday that older members of the community were “really quite philosophical about the whole thing. For younger folks, the fear component is higher, but we have ladies of the Blitz generation who are married to Italians, and have Italian children and grandchildren, but they are very British. . . They really are amazing.

“The biggest thing is the quietness and stillness and emptiness. On the Via del Babuino, where we live, you normally have to look out and find an opening in the crowds of tourists. But, if I were to take you outside now, . . . you would see an entire street completely and entirely empty.” All Saints’ normally had about 200 visitors a day.

“Nobody knows what is going to happen,” he said. “I have been reading Cristofano and the Plague: A study in the history of public health in the age of Galileo [Carlo M. Cipolla] and it talks about how everyone thinks ‘This is happening somewhere else — not in our village or our town.’ But the whole thing in Lombardy started with two individuals.”

PAThe headquarters of the Congregation of the Angelic Sisters of San Paolo in Via Casilina, where 19 nuns have tested positive for Covid-19  

He was aware of “a sense of the tragedy of local parish churches’ losing their role as a place where someone can come in and pray”. A large proportion of his week was spent ensuring a connection with worshippers, including the many young adults who had been repatriated to the UK and the United States. Last week, they had held a “virtual dinner party”.

The speed at which the virus has spread in Italy has prompted questions about the response of the authorities. On 27 February, when 650 people had been infected and 17 had died, the head of the regional government in Lazio, Nicola Zingaretti, travelled to Milan and wrote online: “We must not change our habits. Our economy is stronger than fear: let’s go out for an aperitivo, a coffee, or to eat a pizza.” Nine days later, he announced that he had been infected.

On Sunday, the British Prime Minister warned that that the UK was “only a matter of weeks — two or three — behind Italy”. Statisticians have cautioned, however, against making simple comparisons between the two trajectories. One factor is that Italy has the second oldest population in the world: 23 per cent are aged 65 and above.

In a blog published on 10 March, Edoardo Fanfani an intern at All Saints’, Rome, wrote: “The Coronavirus outbreak is worse than we all thought, it’s growing without control. We were not told enough when we could have done something more.” The city and the congregation would survive, he wrote.

“All the historical characters who mattered passed through the marble gates of Rome. We have survived endless Barbarian invasions, plagues, fires and flooding. We have recovered from the Sack of Rome, the Napoleonic invasions, the rule of Mussolini and the joke of the Nazis. We even survived terrorism, but also bad governments and terrible financial crises. Yet, my friends, we are still here, and we will always be. . .

“We’re a strong congregation, we have survived heat, plague, wars and financial crises in our long history here as Anglicans in Rome, and we always came to the light.”

In his reflection, Canon Bradshaw drew attention to the tall domed church in Venice, the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute — usually referred to simply as the Salute, “a word meaning ‘health’. It was built as an act of thanksgiving for the ending of a plague in the early 17th century.

“Even to this day, four hundred years later, on 21 November, this church is the focus of a very popular festival built around a Mass of Thanksgiving and accompanied by customs and feasting.

“However, now that a contemporary ‘plague’ hits the city its doors are closed for corporate lament and petition. Presumably, in former days, gathering in a church was an important part of attending to human emotions and fears during times of distress. Thank goodness that we now have the internet as a tool to aid us with these things while observing proper social distancing. Hopefully the hour will quickly come, when from within this great church of ‘The Salute’, a grand public thanksgiving will be offered for the demise of the corona-virus and all who helped to combat it.”

In Florence, Fr Lister wanted it to be known in the UK that “We are praying for you here — that you can be spared it, or at least the worst of it.”


‘Two weeks ahead’: pastoral advice from chaplains in Italy

Canon Vickie Sims has been recording morning prayer and compline for broadcast on Facebook instead of live-streaming a eucharist. “It’s not really in my theology to celebrate communion that people are watching,” she said. She was conscious of “not making worship a spectator sport, and that is perhaps a danger we run, slightly”.

Her advice to the clergy in the UK was to “be careful about trying to do too much, or feeling that you need to show that you are the most creative and that your production of your online mass is the most beautiful. . .

“We need to be careful about getting in a frenzy of activity and trying to do something that might not be possible to do. . . My advice is to care for yourself; don’t try to do too much; and just be with your congregation in as personal a way as possible.”

For the past two weeks, the Revd Robert Warren has been compiling an online mass from footage contributed by members of the congregation, including the reading of prayers and intercessions. Next week, ten people are going to send in one of the Ten Commandments each as the congregation explores them. The aim was to get “as many people young and old as we can get doing the service”.

It had been time-consuming, he said. The first service had taken 50 hours to put together, and the second about 40. But “one of the positive comments from folks is that they go to see the faces of the people that they see on Sunday. What we didn’t want to do is for it be a one-man show.”

The advice from the Revd William Lister was to “look after your own prayer life — it’s absolutely essential. . . People can be quite critical, and, if you are not careful, not giving that to God regularly, it would be very easy for that to get on top of you and to feel very depressed because you don’t have the normal feedback and approbation that you would expect. Nobody is shaking your hand at the door saying ‘That was such a lovely sermon.’ All the little gestures and kindnesss are absent.”

The imposition of a lockdown, including closure of churches, had “hit us like a storm”, he said. Clergy needed to think ahead about what might be possible in the coming weeks. “Get a foundation in now that will keep you going when you are on your own.”

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)