Faith-based

Coronavirus Diaries: I’m a Priest in Northern Italy. Our World Is Unimaginable Right Now.

We’re not tolling the church bell anymore.

Two hands holding a mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries" over a photo of a priest holding an open book
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from a priest in Nembro, in Northern Italy, has been edited and condensed for clarity from an interview with Alessio Perrone.

Even for us priests, it’s harrowing. Death, that is, but also the inhumanity with which we are forced to face it in these strange times.

I’m the parish priest in Nembro, a small town near Bergamo, Lombardy, that has been one of the worst hit by Italy’s coronavirus crisis. Here, in a small town of about 11,000, at least 100 people have died in the first 20 days of March alone.

Although our mourning started with the coronavirus outbreak in Lombardy at the end of February, I and the other three priests in Nembro had seen some harbingers since early January. We saw an unusually high number of funerals—up to four or five a week. This had occasionally happened in the past, but in January it was happening every single week—every day we had a funeral, if not two.

For a time, we were astonished at this number. We wondered what was going on. But there was no reason to be alarmed then.

We understood that it had probably been the coronavirus much later, when the crisis exploded in February. In the last few weeks, so many people in our community died of the virus that we had to go to the cemetery two, three, four times a day. Funerals are no longer allowed, like all other gatherings of people, but we have been blessing 16 or 17 bodies a week.

Even I felt sick for 10 days, with high temperature and fatigue. I called the Red Cross, but they said my blood oxygen levels looked OK and that I wasn’t struggling to breathe, so I should just stay home and wait for it to pass. They recommended I rest and take a fever reducer. Thank God, I healed.

The way people are passing away heaps sorrow upon sorrow. Hospital wards are closed off, so not only are people losing a loved one—often in a sudden, fast, and unexpected way—but they also can’t be close to their relative in the hospital or the final moment. This is a huge sorrow: They will only see him or her return after days, perhaps in an urn.

We priests are also barred from visiting, so we have stopped saying last rites. Neither can we visit believers at their place to comfort them.

We keep saying Mass, but people can’t attend. We livestream it on YouTube, Facebook, and Spreaker, and every Sunday at 10 a.m., we remember all those who died during the week.

We can no longer celebrate funerals. Instead of the whole Catholic funeral Mass, we can only say a quick blessing before the casket is buried at the cemetery—a few prayers, the Our Father, the Credo, and a few words. It takes 10 minutes, and only the closest relatives can attend.

We don’t wear masks and gloves, nor do we keep our distance at the cemetery. So many relatives are quarantined that when a person dies of the coronavirus, often only two, three, or five people come to the blessing.

Serving our community is tough at this time. Believers call me—I spend three or four hours on the phone every day to talk to families who have just lost someone or to people who need a comforting word during this lockdown.

For a whole month now, we have stopped tolling the church bells. Their sound was so psychologically devastating—they would toll three, four, five times a day. They fueled anxiety: It was becoming impossible for the community to understand whom they tolled for. “They toll so often. Who is it for this time?”

We also replaced the morning and evening bells with more cheerful sounds, hoping it would create less distress and more hope.

We try to find moments of joy to share with the community because it is almost crushed by the weight of all this anguish. Three children were born this week, and we will share the news on Sunday. We have no other ways.

We priests who live near our people share this pain. We need normality.

This week gave us a glimmer of hope. We still do many blessings at the cemetery, but the number of calls we receive from bereaved families seems to have decreased—perhaps fewer people are dying. This afternoon I spoke with the mayor of Nembro, and he had the same impression. He said, “Let’s take it with a pinch of salt, but let’s keep our fingers crossed. Let’s hope.”

With the other priests here in Nembro, we often talk about what life will be like when this is over. So many of the iconic people of our town are gone that it’s difficult to imagine. We’ll have to take in normality again. We hope this epidemic will have made us rediscover the beauty of the simple things in life—like meeting each other, hugging each other, loving each other.