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Editorial: Prayer and prudence are best practices during worldwide illness

A workers touches up the paint of a railing on a ramp in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 10, 2020. The Vatican has closed St. Peter's Square and Basilica to tourists March 10 through April 3 in cooperation with Italian emergency procedures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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It’s almost unfathomable, but it has happened: All of Italy, including Rome and Vatican City, has gone into lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus in the country.

What does this mean for the seat of Catholicism and its surrounding environs? For starters, all public Masses, including funerals, in the country have been canceled until April 3 (the Friday before Palm Sunday). This includes at St. Peter’s Basilica, a popular tourist destination always, but an especially popular place of pilgrimage during Lent. St. Peter’s Square also has been closed to tourists, and as of press time there were conflicting reports about whether or not the Basilica was open for private prayer.

After confirmation of its first case of coronavirus on March 6, the Vatican also suspended all outpatient services in Vatican City State’s Health and Hygiene Department for a thorough cleaning. Other areas that draw crowds, like the bookstore, photo service, post office and employee cafeteria, also are closed. On March 7, it was announced that Pope Francis will livestream his regular appearances (Sunday’s Angelus address and Wednesday’s general audience) to prevent crowds from gathering in St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis also has made private his daily Masses at Casa Santa Marta.

The Italian bishops issued a statement recognizing that while compliance with Italian authorities undoubtedly “causes suffering and hardship for pastors, priests and the faithful,” they believe it is for the greater good — motivated “solely by the desire to do one’s part, to contribute to safeguarding public health at this time.” While these extraordinary measures have been met with criticism in some quarters, it is the opinion of this editorial board that they are important steps to take in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Common-sense preventative actions are necessary to try to quell the spread of what public-health authorities have determined is a highly transmissible disease.

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It is very possible that places within the United States will face similar challenges in coming days and weeks, and we can glean best practices from our neighbors. The Code of Canon Law states that if participation in the Eucharistic celebration becomes impossible for any “grave cause,” it is “strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word … or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.” In addition, the tradition of the Church has long held that the faithful unable or unwilling to receive the body and blood of Christ at Mass might instead participate in a “spiritual Communion” — what St. Thomas Aquinas described as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament and in lovingly embracing him.”

In response to these trying times, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, papal vicar of Rome, sent a letter to the faithful encouraging them to approach these challenging days “with the strength of the Faith, the certainty of hope, and the joy of charity,” adding, “the season of Lent helps us to live this great trial evangelically.”

That should be the attitude of each one of us. As we face the unknown this Lent, we do so remembering that Jesus faced death and won — and that his victory ultimately is our victory. This is always cause for faith, for hope and for joy — no matter the challenge — and as people of faith, we have a prime opportunity to be witnesses to this truth.

With COVID-19, the world is in a rare common battle that knows no borders, class, ethnicity or religion. All we can do is prepare, invoke common sense and prudence, and, most importantly, put our trust in the Lord.

On March 11, the Diocese of Rome was to hold a “day of prayer and fasting … to ask of God help for our city, for Italy, and for the world.” Particular prayers were asked for those who are sick and for their caregivers — and “for our communities, that they might bear witness to faith and hope in this moment.”

It should not take a lockdown to prompt us into such action. This should be the response of us all.

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young

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