(Quarantined in Milan, Italy)
When future historians study the huge crisis triggered by the coronavirus, they will ask many questions, some of which might already have answers. Amid the crisis today, with Italy still in quarantine, we have to make do with the questions, which are not few or trivial.
The coronavirus crisis brings to light many contradictions and shortcomings of our modern world, which have long laid in the background, buried by the prevailing optimism. Taking advantage of the extra time available to us, perhaps we should raise these questions now, trying to learn some lessons from them.
The Fragility of the Modern World
The first question involves the fragility of the modern world. It is truly astonishing how a being so small, indeed microscopic, could bring to its knees a world that boasted of being solid, powerful and enduring. The economy has ground to a halt as stock exchanges are plummeting. Shops are closed, flights canceled and roads deserted. We see events postponed, sports banned and borders closed.
We used to think that things like this could only happen as a result of a world war or an extraordinary natural disaster. However, we now see this is not the case. The culprit is a tiny being a few microns in size. It disrupted our lives and shattered the myth of the world’s stability.
This is a great first lesson if we want to listen to the signs of the times.
Our Lady spoke at Fatima about a series of scourges that would fall upon sinful humanity, followed by a general conversion and consequent restoration of Christian civilization. Many did not heed her words, not because of a doctrinal objection but rather because of the conviction—more pragmatic than intellectual—that this world would last forever. They believed that they could continue to enjoy it undisturbed. However, the coronavirus crisis teaches us that things can change and even quickly. We cannot take anything for granted. This state of affairs is not eternal. Everything can vanish; only God remains.
From Criminal to Heroine: the Chinese Transformation
The second question involves the Chinese maneuvers in this crisis. In the coming years, historians will find it hard to explain how China manipulated the coronavirus narrative to the point that it transformed itself from a criminal to heroine in a few weeks.
The epidemic began in China, where it spread due to the extreme neglect and arrogance of the communist government in Beijing. The first sign of the epidemic was an outbreak of bronchitis in Wuhan on November 17, 2019. Those infected had one thing in common: they frequented the city’s open livestock market. As early as December 15, Drs. Ai Fen and Li Wenliang raised the alarm of an ongoing epidemic. On December 30, Dr. Wenliang was arrested for “spreading false news.” On January 7, The Wall Street Journal published a report about the outbreak. The Beijing government reacted by expelling its journalists. The authorities also forbade any further reports under very severe penalties. With the epidemic now out of control, President Xi Jinping made a public statement only on January 30. Three days later, he decreed the state of emergency.
If China had reacted promptly in late November by sealing off the Wuhan market, there probably would be no epidemic today. The real culprit is China. Two intertwined questions arise: Why did China act this way? Why does no one accuse China of wrong-doing?
The answer to the first question is explained by the totalitarian mentality proper to communism. Such regimes always react by keeping secret anything that might affect their image. This happened in 1986 with the Chernobyl disaster, and with the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000. However, this mentality does not explain everything.
Another factor is the reluctance to hamper the Chinese economy on which half the world now depends. The world powers preferred to keep the Chinese locomotive running, even at the risk of triggering a pandemic. A certain capitalist mentality joins with the faults of the communist mentality. This complicity helps answer the second question: the reason why the Chinese cannot be touched or accused is that they hold the knife by the handle.
One of the great enigmas of our age—a real mystery of iniquity—is how the West, which prides itself on its democratic and liberal character, has so servilely submitted to a dictatorial government dominated by a Communist Party. To make money, the West consciously and voluntarily put its head in the guillotine. Can it be any wonder now that the executioner is pulling the lever?
As masters in shady operations, the Chinese have also taken advantage of the crisis by strengthening their dominance in markets. When the crisis pummeled the shares of many Western companies operating in China, the Central Bank of Beijing responded by buying hundreds of billions in equity securities. Thus, it obtained majority partnerships with many of these Western companies. All this happened under the indifferent (and often complicit) eyes of the gurus of Western finance.
There is yet more. In a twist worthy of the worst comedy, China now presents itself as the world’s savior. Everyone now praises the “Chinese model” for dealing with the coronavirus. Beijing even allows itself the luxury of sending planes with “virus experts” and medical supplies to Western countries. It sends help to resolve the epidemic that it started. Thus, the nation went from criminal to heroine in a few weeks, a truly amazing transformation!
The coronavirus crisis may be a historic opportunity for us to review our whole relationship with Beijing. We still have time. Let’s react before it’s too late!
When the Shepherd Abandons the Flock
A third and most excruciating question about the coronavirus crisis involves the attitude of the Catholic Church, particularly in Italy. The Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) bowed to the demands of the Conte Government without considering the spiritual needs of the faithful.
In an article in the Corriere della Sera, well-known analyst Andrea Riccardi writes: “Tense negotiations started between the CEI and Palazzo Chigi. The Government was adamant: it would accept no measures other than those proposed by its sanitary technicians. After a quick arm-wrestling bout, the CEI caved in.” Riccardi implies that the CEI surrendered reluctantly. The rapidity and alacrity with which our bishops applied the sanitary measures issued by the government make us think differently as they sometimes anticipated them or then applied them in an exaggerated and even unilateral way.
Over its two-thousand-year history, the Church in Italy has faced many terrible epidemics, as seen in the plague of Rome in 590 or those of Milan in 1578 and 1630. The Bride of Christ always reacted with a supernatural spirit, remaining close to the faithful, encouraging them in prayer and penance, and multiplying their access to the Sacraments. Great saints like Saint Charles Borromeo returned to Milan from Lodi while the civil authorities fled. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga chose to remain with the sick in the Roman College, paying for the heroic gesture with his life. The predominant note of the Church during times of plagues was to reinvigorate Her care of souls.
For the first time in its history, the Italian hierarchy—with few notable exceptions—has abandoned the faithful by depriving them of spiritual support. The bishops first imposed Communion in the hand and took away all holy water. They then suppressed all Masses and religious ceremonies, including funerals. All churches were immediately closed. Any violation of the rules could lead to the imprisonment of the “rebel” priest. Many commented it was worse than in Soviet times.
If the health norm is to keep a yard’s distance between people to keep them from touching each other, then why not celebrate Masses with the faithful scattered throughout the church? Could the number of Masses not be multiplied to allow the faithful to attend in this manner throughout the day? Could not Masses be celebrated in the public square, with the faithful quietly arranged outdoors keeping the necessary safety distances? None of this seems to have been considered. Instead, the bishops chose to deprive the faithful of the Sacraments just when they needed them the most.
Riccardi touches upon this point in the article cited above: “It’s OK to avoid crowded Masses. However, it is not clear why worship and prayers are forbidden, if practiced in safety. Perhaps not all decision-makers grasp the special meaning of the Mass for believers, of which the ancient martyrs said: ‘Sine Dominicum non possumus’ (We cannot be without the Sunday).” This time, the Church caved in entirely, as Fabio Adernò points out in an article on Vatican expert Marco Tossati’s blog: “The limitations on Christian worship imposed by the changing events of history in certain circumstances have always been suffered by the Church in the form of persecution and martyrdom, and never deliberately chosen with a relativistic or compliant spirit.” Put simply, what the enemies of the Church used to do, now the hierarchy does.
Certainly, Caesar cannot be required to understand the reasons of God. However, we can and must require the bishops to assert the superior reasons of God, instead of bowing ignobly before Caesar.
After one week of applying these norms, the situation was slightly altered. Following an overt recommendation by Pope Francis (who had previously said something very different), some Italian dioceses, including Rome, have issued new norms that leave the opening of churches to the parish priest’s discretion. This norm applies only to parochial churches. There is no mention of Masses or Sacraments. It seems that the hierarchy has listened, at least in part, to the clamor of the people. However, the clergy should take the leadership role not the faithful. Riccardo Cascioli is correct when he writes: “The ecclesiastical hierarchy is in a state of mental confusion.”
Let us raise one last point. Leaving aside the judgment as to if this pandemic can be interpreted as a divine punishment, the obvious fact remains that it would be an excellent opportunity for preaching, especially since it is Lent when we should focus on the terrible but redemptive sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The epidemic has clearly shaken many consciences, which are usually overwhelmed by the desire to enjoy life. People are much more open to heavenly considerations, which offers opportunities for the purifying intervention of divine grace. On this occasion, however, the silence of the hierarchy is tragic. Without judging their intentions, we see a lack of supernatural spirit that is truly disturbing. With few exceptions, they remain silent when they should speak all the more.
Here are a few questions—mostly unanswered—raised by the situation created by the spread of this strange creature, no larger than 50 thousandths of a millimeter, that is turning our lives upside down.