It has been more than two weeks now since I locked myself down in the faculty residence at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy (Naples) where I teach Moral Theology. As a Catholic Jesuit Priest, we have a seclusion period lasting eight days that is carried out in silence regularly every year, so I have some experience in seeking God by withdrawing from society and chaos. But I had never, believe me, imagined that I would be locked down for weeks because of a virus in order not to be infected and not to infect anyone.
Everything happened suddenly. First, we heard a bit about the spread of a virus. Then the first cases began to appear in Italy and the first measures were taken, but we continued our lives in the same way. As the Mediterranean culture requires, we continued to hug each other, kiss each other in our church services, eat our pizzas in packed small Italian pizzerias, raise our red wine filled glasses and drink from them and kiss the patients we visited in the hospital on the forehead.
We even joined the chorus of those criticizing by saying, “This is being exaggerated — an atmosphere of panic is being created” when serious measures were first taken, the same ones we are today arguing were too late in being implemented. Then suddenly, the number of cases started multiplying, losses of life were added to the cases, deaths increased exponentially, and government decrees started accompanying them. All schools were closed, and I suddenly had to face the fact that my classes in the university were cancelled. Then, “bam,” our seminary was closed and we shyly waved goodbye to our 100 seminarians and sent them home. Lecture halls were empty; corridors were quiet. We started rubbing our hands with disinfectant, wore masks on our faces and started watching the Rai 1 news channel with at least a meter’s distance between our priest brothers. We were aware of the truth but still continued in our minds to not believe that it was true. While we lived a devoted life based on “believing,” holding tightly onto the option of “not believing” will remain one of the most unforgettable paradoxes of my life.
However, the biggest tremor we experienced came when the church abided by the government decrees nonchalantly and we had to conduct our services without the congregation. When this decision was communicated to us, we said, “What do you mean? How come? In such a situation when we need God the most, we are going to close the doors of the church?”
We cried, we did not sleep, and at the end, we did actually close them. This virus does not listen to the church, the chapel, the mosque, the small mosque, the synagogue or the cemevi. I am only 47; maybe this was not very hard for me, but with my fellow priests who are 80 years old and have no such technological experiences, we have been conducting streaming services and have been able to reach our congregation through the web. Streaming church services, other prayers, spiritual consolation and guidance... streaming classes… streaming academic meetings… We have put aside the sermons we gave to the young generations for years about internet dependency, that they should take their eyes away from their cell phones and turn to the people around them, to nature and art. We have to live by streaming.
Hey, coronavirus, how powerful are you, really?
As this article is being written, the number of those who tested positive has risen to 53,578. Behind these figures are lives that have suddenly faded away, life stories, grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, but at the same time also very young people. While waiting for the official press conference at 6 p.m. every evening and listening to the figures multiplying, I close my eyes and try to put a face to the lives who passed away without being able to bid proper goodbye to their loved ones while “feeling the pain of broken glass in their lungs.”
We should not get used to numbers and forget the victims as if they never lived. The least we can do is not to let the virus do this to us. Those who died have names, even if the cemeteries are full and their coffins are sealed and kept in churches, even if they are carried to other cities with military trucks, they all have names: Roberto, Angela, Father Don Antonio from Ariano, Syrian refugee Abdullah, Romanian nurse Mihaela, Filipino cook Dalisay — all of them were Italy, all of them lived.
We have faith in God. As long as we have God, we have hope. We should not lose hope; we should give consolation to those who are about to lose hope. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, has said, “Science is the true mentor in life.”
"Fides et ratio": faith and reason complement each other without denying each other. Without losing our faith, we should try to use our minds and try to find a solution to the problem through science. As a matter of fact, submission is not possible without turning to science. Now is the time to support our scientists on one hand and on the other hand, turn to God with our faith and acknowledge it as a moral responsibility to trust and obey the measures our states are taking. It is time to understand that those who show up on the streets with the irresponsibility of thinking “Nothing will happen to me” are risking tens of people’s lives. Italians, who constantly eat pastry, have now become athletes during these quarantine days; they are jogging for miles and miles on the sharp cobblestones of the Italian streets.
Actually, the issue is not China, Italy, Spain or Korea anymore. The door to the brotherhood of religions, the brotherhood of culture, the brotherhood of the word, has all of a sudden emerged as the brotherhood of the coronavirus because of this disease.
Calling a spade a spade, I repeat: Hey there, coronavirus, how powerful are you? Your power humbles me. It exceeds me.
Now is the time to learn lessons from each others’ experiences, strengthen the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity and to act together. Was Italy too slow? Then Turkey should run. Do the Italian people continue to go out? Turkish people should be more virtuous and show their citizenship obligations at the highest level.
There are exemplary acts we should follow in Italy also. Is Italy showing exemplary transparency by sharing developments related to the disease? Turkey should not refrain from demonstrating the same transparency. The citizen has a right to know how many of their fellow citizens have caught the disease, how many have died and how many have recovered. As a matter of fact, when there is no doubt, there is trust; when there is trust, there is success. A terror attack happens and we do not trust the number of victims. Our children become “martyrs” in cross-border operations and we doubt the number of martyrs, just as we doubt the number of journalists unjustly jailed. Every day, the Health Minister delivers his statements and nobody should have any doubt in their minds whatsoever. Success against this virus will only and only be possible with the spirit of international fraternity and solidarity, as well as the feeling of national togetherness and trust.
Naturally, we should not allow the top subject of the coronavirus make us forget other hurtful matters. Those videos on how to wash hands properly and the celebrity posts about their quarantine times should not let us forget that my Chaldean brother Father Remzi Diril's parents were missing for 70 days, and his mom's body has been found dead in a stream bed near their village in Şırnak and his father is still missing.
The coronavirus does not erase violence against women that is continuing with all its might all around the country and the Syrian refugees who have been irresponsibly directed to the Greek border to face barbed wire and difficult conditions.
When we go back to our “normal” lives after the coronavirus, we should draw lessons from what we are having to experience today, without separating faith and wisdom, by reinforcing world brotherhood, and by building a brand-new world that has coexistence and solidarity. In order to freely walk hand-in-hand and smiling with our children on the street tomorrow, today we will #StayAtHome and #WeWillOvercome.
The opinions expressed in this article and liabilities from these opinions are completely mine and do not represent the Catholic Church, of which I am a member, nor its related institutions.
Catholic Jesuit Priest, Professor of Moral Theology and Bioethics at the Pontifical Faculty of Southern Italy (Naples).