Rome slowly opens

A masked Fr. Steve at St. Peter’s

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, vicar general, writes about a Rome that is slowly reopening following significant shut-downs due to COVID-19. Although there is some relaxing of stay-at-home orders, Rome is a much different place than its usual spring-time busyness. Fr. Steve writes:

After two months of staying at home, the city of Rome has begun to open. As of May 11, we no longer had to carry legal documents allowing us to leave our homes, and a few more businesses, such as book and clothing stores, could open. People are cautious. For my first outing to a doctor’s appointment, there were only two of us riding the bus. Masks are mandatory, and instead of the normal 50 seats, to keep social distance, only nine were available for seating.

Within the Generalate we have been able to maintain regular times of prayer, though we are spaced further apart in the chapel. Because all our students are now attending their courses online, the commute to their computer doesn’t take nearly as long as a bus ride to the Pontifical Universities. That allows us a little extra shut-eye, starting our day in chapel at 7:00 a.m. instead of 6:30. Members of the General Administration are also doing more of our work online. Fr. Vincent [a member of the General Council] is still in Indonesia, awaiting the opening of Rome’s airports to foreign citizens. Rather than meeting around the council table, we see each other on our computer screens as we try to attend to the needs of the Congregation in these trying times. [A photo of a recent meeting is at the top of the page.]

Tape on the ground keep visitors at a safe distance at St. Peter’s

On Saturday I went to the Vatican to finally pick up a couple of Papal Blessings I asked for in February. I usually expect to wait 15-20 minutes to be called, but there were three staff members and only two customers, so I was waited on immediately.

I walked past the shuttered tourist shops. The economy is suffering greatly, and thousands of small businesses, restaurants and hotels are in danger of going out of business. Many locked doors posted signs asking the public to push the government to find ways to help. Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading to St. Peter’s square, was a ghost town.

May is normally one of the busiest months for tourism in Rome. On a regular Saturday, the security line for St. Peter’s Basilica has 500-1,000 people or more. This Saturday, the square was basically empty. New protocols required a quick scan of my temperature before I could enter the security line. The pavement was marked with yellow stripes each two meters apart to maintain social distance. There were only six people in line at 9:30 in the morning, and I quickly cleared the metal detector. I walked about 200 yards, when an excited security guard came running after me. “Scusi, Scusi!” He was nervous about a suspicious box of gel I had in my backpack. On my way to the bus, when I saw how short the line to the grocery store was, I ducked in and bought some toothpaste. Unlike at the airport, they allowed me to keep it.

SCJs social distance in the chapel

St. Peter’s Basilica has such incredible art and sacred spaces. Most of the times that I’ve been inside it is so very crowded and noisy. This day the crowd totaled only about 40 people. There were only two of us in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta, which allowed for a lovely time of prayer and meditation. The four Papal Basilicas in Rome all offer confessions in a wide variety of languages, mornings and afternoons. I encountered a thoughtful Chinese priest whose station advertised confessions in Chinese, Italian and English.  Afterward I took my time to wander, pray and reflect in such a special place as I’ve never  encountered it before.

The Superior General and Councilors all had plans to be on the road for visitations at this time, which have been canceled. That closed door opened the opportunity to complete a visitation in the Generalate, with the members of the Rome II community. We hope to begin traveling again in a month or two, but so much is still uncertain. Much depends on the situation in each country. We have been fortunate that everyone in the Generalate has remained healthy so far, and we continue taking to heart the warnings and procedures put in place for public safety.

Sometimes when I get very busy, I wonder if I would have been happier with a quieter, more monastic life. This period has been a small taste of that. I have tried to make the best of it and have confirmed that God has indeed called me to the apostolic life!