La Città Deserta
(Pasquino endures another plague.)
How lonely she is now, the once crowded city!
Widowed is she, who was mistress over nations.
These lines from the Book of Lamentations haunt Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, convalescing at Gemelli University Hospital. Since the middle of Lent, the coronavirus has been his crown of thorns, but he wears it lightly.
“I live this moment as an opportunity that Providence has given me to share in the sufferings of so many brothers and sisters,” he told the press, after testing positive for Covid-19. “I offer my prayer for them, for the whole diocesan community, and for the people of the City of Rome.”
“What is this, a Passion Play?” scoffed a reporter from Il Manifesto. “Let him go to Sordevolo!” But the joke fell flat. De Donatis might be the most powerful churchman to contract the virus, but nobody thought his rank would protect him. Why, only last week, Bishop Angelo Moreschi, the retired Apostolic Vicar of Ethiopia and a prominent Salesian, had died of the infection after having a foot amputated.
The Cardinal Vicar insists on Zooming with staff, quarantined in the Lateran Palace. When doctors object, he reminds them that hundreds of priests have perished: six in Bergamo alone. Most died while anointing the sick or comforting the dying. Surely, Rome’s acting bishop can hold a briefing, despite a slight fever? His aides pop up on the MacBook screen and report.
When His Eminence was admitted to the clinic on March 30, the Monday before Palm Sunday, Rome had been locked down for three straight weeks, but people still ventured into the streets. On this Easter Monday, the city is as empty as Christ’s tomb, its silence broken only by the plash of fountains, the chirps of sparrows, the sporadic tolling of bells, and, late at night, the rumble of military trucks, imposing the curfew and gathering the dead. Old women have stopped singing to each other from their balconies. Sullen teens refuse to rev their Vespas in solidarity.
The Cardinal Vicar crosses himself. Morale is worse than he thought. In his Easter Vigil homily, livestreamed from St. Peter’s, Pope Francis had compared the suffering from the pandemic to the silence of Holy Saturday, a silence of transition and travail, when Christ harrowed Hell to rescue the souls trapped in Limbo. But this is the silence of the Apocalypse, after the Lamb opens the seventh seal: the expectant hush before a verdict.
But who will be judged?
Before the plague surfaced in Italy, Rome was blasé. The news from China was distant thunder on a humid summer evening, frisson to liven drowsy gossip and tepid Campari and sodas. But things changed when Covid-19 arrived in Milan as boldly as the troops of Charles VIII. Like that syphilitic army, the virus advanced across Lombardy and Veneto, turned south into Tuscany and Umbria, then marched into Emilia Romagna.
As the invasion neared, Rome developed a siege mentality. Black marketers sold bagged rice and toilet paper. Children syphoned gas. Matrons disinfected their kitchens until even fried garlic tasted like lye. Racists, of course, scapegoated tourists and immigrants. Their hatred proved more contagious than the virus.
Hotels canceled reservations for Chinese guests. Restaurants refused to serve Chinese diners. Universities banned Chinese students from classes. Barflies asked Chinese women if they had a cousin named Ah Choo. Punks vandalized Chinese shops in the Esquilino district. Graffitists spray-painted the Pu Tuo Shan Temple on Via Ferruccio. Beneath a crudely drawn mouse with slanted eyes, some jerk wrote: “The Year of the Plague Rat!”
Chinese Italian business leaders protested. They had transformed the seedy neighborhood near Termini Station into a prosperous enclave of upscale boutiques and laughing Buddhas. Was this their reward? Sonia Fenxia, owner of the popular restaurant Hang Zhou, shamed the Chamber of Commerce in an interview for The Guardian, but Rome did not repent until the lockdown began.
But contrition has its limits. How much longer must laymen sanitize their hands with Amuchina? Should Pontius Pilate be their patron saint even after Good Friday? Unrest was growing, warned Papal Secretary Yoannis Lahzi Gaid on WhatsApp. What if millions of Catholics, now unable to attend Sunday mass, got in the habit of not showing up and never returned? People will abandon the Church, if they feel the Church has abandoned them. Perhaps audacity is required.
During the Plague of Justinian, aides note, when the dead clogged the streets, Pope Gregory the Great gambled. On April 25, 560 AD, he led a procession through Rome, begging God to spare the city. Looking up at the Emperor Hadrian’s tomb, he saw the Archangel Michael brandishing a flaming sword. As the procession approached, Michael lowered and sheathed his weapon. “The plague is over!” Gregory said. “God’s wrath has been appeased!” The faithful cheered and sang Regina Caeli. Unfortunately, His Eminence added, eighty dropped dead, so social distancing might have its merits after all.
The Cardinal Vicar ends the Zoom conference and lies back in bed. Time will undo this knot, not men. He reaches for his missal and caresses its leather cover. Bookstores might reopen as early as next week, according to a bulletin from the City Council. If he recovers, he will browse at the San Paolo near the Vatican, and Easter Sunday finally may dawn. Until then, it is Holy Saturday. Rome is Christ’s tomb, and we souls in Limbo must await our salvation.
Pasquino’s secretary is Anthony Di Renzo, professor of writing at Ithaca College. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.