A Jesuit went to Milan to learn Italian. Covid-19 taught him something more.

The author's view from his room in Milan. (Credit: Patrick Gilger, S.J.)

After sunset each night teenagers gather in the piazza below the windows of my fifth floor room. They are not rowdy, not really. They are just young.

And here, apparently, that means they talk and sing a bit, and then drink a bit and sing a bit more. Then they sit and laugh and sing in the darkness beneath my room. Which is why I cannot sleep. And it is sleep I need because I am sick.

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Two weeks later, I am no longer sick, and it is easy to sleep. And though I presume that somewhere those teenagers are still laughing and singing and drinking, during these times of quarantine they are no longer under my windows. I miss them.

On a clear day my view is superb. To the north the snow-capped tips of the Alps are visible. To the south, if I lean out far enough, is the golden Madonnina that crowns the steeple of the Duomo; and crowding in upon its skirts just out of my view, the famed La Scala opera house.

Madoninna
The golden Madonnina that crowns the steeple of the Duomo. (Credit: Patrick Gilger, S.J.)

Milan. On a normal day a visitor would find it genteel and lively, historic and modern, businesslike and bustling; a city fast approaching the Platonic ideal of cosmopolitan Europe. But much has changed.

Having just arrived here in early March, healthy and whole, I cannot measure how much. The news that the coronavirus was loose in Lombardy only crossed the U.S. radar the day before I left New York City—and even with such little warning time, my red eye across the Atlantic was all but empty. Uncomplaining, I pushed up the armrests on my row and slept.

Landing at Milan Malpensa the next morning, I was—after a quick temperature scan by a pair of masked health care workers—passed through customs with scarcely a word. A train ride later I arrived at the doors of the building where I was to stay: Leone XIII, a Jesuit high school just northwest of downtown.

It was a Tuesday morning, and I had prepared myself for the sights and sounds of a high school, the buzz of 1,000 young women and men. But that is not what I found. Schools—along with museums and sporting events and all other events that gather humans in significant scale—had been shuttered the day before. When I arrived, the piazza out front was empty, the lights turned out at the front desk, a black steel security gate pulled across the front doors, which, after a few rings of the bell, were opened to me by an elegant elderly priest.

I had prepared myself for the sights and sounds of a high school, the buzz of 1,000 young women and men. But that is not what I found.

Schools have remained closed for the weeks I have lived here, and they will remain so through at least early April, when I had intended to depart. The halls and classrooms are silent; the neighboring church is dark. But the city itself, although it seems slow even to this stranger, feels neither lifeless nor overrun by fear.

Instead, it feels patient, attentive; like a whale that has just submerged after filling its lungs with air: Yes, eventually it would need to breathe again. But not yet.

•••

I confess that, schooled as I am in our American response to such crises, this patience is for me a puzzle. Even for a blizzard we Americans clear the shelves of bread and milk. Our rational reaction to panic is to prepare what can be prepared and obtain what can be obtained.

We know how the logic goes; it’s etched more deeply into our memories than any song our mothers sang us: I should buy another. My responsibility is to those I love. I should buy another. If they go without, I will never forgive myself. I should buy another.

This is not to say that Americans are not a generous people; we are. But above all we are pragmatists, and our customary response even in times of abundance is to build bigger barns in which to store our grain. 

And so even hospitals must now wait a month for masks and the shelves stand empty of hand sanitizer. And so again—because it is rational and because we are well-practiced and because it is immensely difficult to imagine another way of managing the fear that accompanies crises—we have performed the score as written.

Being assumed into this social melody has been for me—a Jesuit, a priest—a peculiarly apt Lenten penance.

It feels different here. This is a difference neither of some greater capacity for altruism nor of some miraculous philanthropic abundance. People are neither more heroic, nor is there more to be given. And perhaps Manhattan—where I normally live and where the hospital beds are now full and the U.S.N.S. Comfort now docks—feels different now as well.

But here it is as if the familiar refrain I have been taught to sing in response to the verse of fear has been changed just slightly. From the key of C to B minor. As if there were some handwritten instruction on the sheet music the city is performing that reads: lentando; più piano.

I must say, being assumed into this social melody has been for me—a Jesuit, a priest—a peculiarly apt Lenten penance. It is as if Milan, under quarantine, has asked me to renounce the particular version of our American response to fear that I have made my own: the unceasing effort to control, to master, to define and thereby dictate what is really real and truly true. And thereby be secure.

Unlike the Italians singing to each other from their balconies in Napoli and Siena and Rome, I do not yet sing this song well.

•••

St. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, the ruins of which lie today under a suburb of Tunis, in the middle of the third century. Aside from certain theologians and historians of late antiquity, the world knows Cyprian mainly for one thing: there is a plague named after him. Over the course of some 20 years, the Plague of Cyprian ravaged its way across the Roman Empire. From Ethiopia to Scotland, it devastated the populations of both city and countryside. It was one of the acids that ate away at the foundations of an empire already slowly disintegrating.

This plague bears Cyprian’s name neither because he was responsible for it nor because he resolved it, but because he wrote about it.

This plague bears Cyprian’s name neither because he was responsible for it nor because he resolved it, but because he wrote about it. It is because of his “De Mortalitate,” a sermon written to console the faithful in the midst of the epidemic, that we know something of its effects.

It is because of his writing that we know, for example, that this plague arrived with a terrible fever that began, as he put it, “in the inmost depths” and burned outwards, causing “wounds in the throat.” It is how we know that it shook the intestines so that no nourishment could be retained, and that it set the eyes “on fire from the force of the blood” rushing through the body. It is because of his short panegyric that we know that many of those who suffered it were left deafened or blinded or crippled.

And it is Cyprian’s brief descriptions that have allowed epidemiological historians to postulate that his plague was, in all likelihood, either some form of viral hemorrhagic fever—a filovirus like Ebola—or a highly contagious virus causing acute respiratory disease. Like our Covid-19.

And just as we are now learning that national borders are not sufficient to curb the threat of such a pandemic, so did these ancient Christians learn that disease is no minder of creed. Just like their neighbors, they suffered. And, like humans of every age, they wanted to know why.

It is to his credit that Cyprian does not really answer that question. Instead of attempting to give these people—people with whom he spent his life, beside whom he worked, with whom ate, next door to whom he slept, who sat before him at the holy sacrifice—an explanation, Cyprian instead reminded them of their hope in eternal life and asked them to search their suffering in this world for meaning in another way.

Like humans of every age, they wanted to know why.

He did this by asking them to consider not the cause of the plague, but their response. Here are his words: “Beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one…to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients.”

Cyprian asked the people of Carthage to regard this plague as the bearer of a question: Are those in health tending the sick? Are physicians caring for their patients? Are the rich showing compassion for the poor?

In the waning days of the Roman Empire, Cyprian asked people fearful of the effects of a terrible plague to come nearer to suffering, to brave proximity to danger, to risk themselves for others.

We still see and honor such choices today, in health care workers and grocery store clerks and all those who stand on the front lines of our own pandemic. They teach us, as did Cyprian, that the question of whether we have the courage to come closer to those who are suffering must be posed again and again.

•••

For those first two weeks in Milan, before social distancing became social discipline, I did my best to find a pattern for my days. And since my research (one of the two reasons I had come to Italy, the other being to study the language) had been well and truly disrupted, I began approximating my Manhattan routine. I awoke, dressed, drank an absurdly tiny café lungo produced by a machine almost as tall as myself and stopped by the chapel before returning to my room to attend hours of Italian class that is now, as with so much else, a video call.

Cyprian asked people fearful of the effects of a terrible plague to come nearer to suffering, to brave proximity to danger, to risk themselves for others.

Then, in the afternoons, my mind still ablur with non capisco’s and sbaglio’s and the thousand meanings of the word ci, I would walk the city. It was quiet then, but not anxious. Thinned, but not empty. There was still gelato to be had and churches to be visited, dogs to be walked and old men playing bocce in the park.

After, I would return home to the empty school, brush the rain from my shoulders and head to Mass and dinner with the Jesuit community. We would eat pasta and prosciutto, drink white wine and perhaps a bit of grappa as a digestif. For the most part, I would stay silent during these meals, doing my best to follow the rapid pitter-patter of words falling around me, until Father Bagatti, careful and patient, would ask me about my day. An unselfconsciously courteous man, the pace of his speech would slow so that I could catch the meaning of his words: Che cosa hai fatto oggi?

Father Bagatti is the soul of an Italian gentleman. Nearly 80 now, he passes for 20 years younger with little trouble. He smiles readily, holds his cigarette in precisely three fingers, always offers a toast before taking his first sip of wine. It was he who had opened the gate of the school to my nervous ringing that first morning, strolling toward me wearing his black, faded, impeccably fitted clerical suit. His thick, white hair was combed straight back in a pompadour, and a wool overcoat hung from his shoulders so that when he reached out and gently took my hand in greeting, it was as if I had stepped off an airplane and into “The Irishman.”

SantAmbrogio
Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (Credit: Patrick Gilger, S.J.)

I do my best, each time he asks, to respond to his question about my day. One night, with the words of a toddler, I tried and failed to describe what it was to kneel before St. Ambrose’s body as it lay beneath the altar in the basilica that bears his name. On another I strained to relate the experience of standing in silence before the octagonal baptistery where, at the Easter Vigil in the year 387, St. Augustine and his eternally restless heart were plunged, by that same Ambrose, into the healing waters. I did not at that time know the Italian word for tears.

Father Bagatti listens with unstrained attention, filling the gaps in my efforts at speech with a few well-anticipated words and, because he is a gentleman, correcting only the most grating of my grammatical mistakes. He has been living in Milan for decades; has been superior of the community at Leone XIII since there were more than 20 Jesuits living here. Now there are four.

There are certain things we can share while remaining quite alone.

One evening, after I finished speaking, I learned how much the city had changed not just over those decades but these weeks. He told a story that seemed a riddle to him.

On his walk that afternoon, he said, he had chanced upon a few others out doing the same and, his usual manner altered only by the distance he maintained, greeted them. But instead of responding with pleasure they were shaken, shocked to be greeted at all. Offering only a cursory response, each moved quickly on their way.

Even in the retelling he is chagrined. His lips press together and the corners of his mouth pull taut as he turns the moment over in his memory, a puzzle box refusing to open. A moment passes. I take a sip of wine. We sit together. And then, half to us and half to himself, he asks: Why were they so alarmed?

There are certain things we can share while remaining quite alone. The kind of mutual hurt shared only by lovers, for example. Or resentment. Or anxiety.

Yet there is a difference, psychologists tell us, between anxiety and fear. Fear has an object upon which to focus: The sound in the darkness; the weapon in the hand. Anxiety, on the other hand, does not. Fear relates to something. Anxiety is our response to unknown threats.

Surely it must be a strange thing to have lived to see not proximity but distance become the act of courage required to contain this pandemic.

But even though we are uncertain about when it will end, the crisis through which we are now passing is not entirely unknown. We are beginning to construct an understanding of this pandemic, an object upon which to focus. We have a name for it and we have numbers of the infected. We have threat assessments and economic effects and risk factors stratified by age. We should be able to move from isolated anxiety toward shared response.

But then there are the empty shelves. And the requisite two meters between everyone, all the time.

Father Bagatti is well aware of the need for physical distance. He has told me as much both in words and in the fact that he now takes his daily walks on the roof of the high school rather than through the city. He understands; he is obedient.

But surely it must be a strange thing to have lived to see not proximity but distance become the act of courage required to contain this pandemic. Even more when that necessary distance manifests in a startled and frightened response to an old man’s greeting, more a psychic than a physical separation. It seems the height of irony, in our alone-together age, that this pandemic requires us, for their good as well as our own, to avoid the nearness of strangers.

After a few moments Father Bagatti lifts his head. The smile has returned to his eyes. He looks around, lifts his glass; offers a toast: Chi vivra, vedra, he says.

It’s an old Italian proverb, one that roughly translates as “time will tell,” or “wait and see.” And it’s more or less fine to use it that way if you ever find yourself in need of an Italian proverb. But, as always, there is a sliver of meaning missing from the translation. Because what the words say is not “time will tell” but “the one who lives will see.”

Because what the words say is not “time will tell” but “the one who lives will see.”

•••

St. Charles Borromeo, whose body lies inside a crystal-fronted altar in a small chapel beneath the cupola of the Duomo, was cardinal archbishop of Milan in the mid-16th century. He is a man famous for so many things—being a relentless reformer, a founder of schools, the organizer of the final session of the Council of Trent—that it is easy to overlook the fact that there is also a plague named after him.

The Plague of San Carlo arrived in Milan in the summer of 1576 and stayed until the beginning of 1578. Over the year and half that it governed the city, it disrupted civic life, brought commerce to a standstill, and took the lives of more than 17,000 people. Most of these were the poor, of course, as the city’s governor and nobility had fled as soon as victims began to fill the Ca’ Granda hospital. (The same hospital is once again filled with the sick today. It is the hospital you have read about, the one you have seen on the news. It is one of the best in all of Europe.)

With most of its leadership in absentia, it was Borromeo who attempted to bring order to Milan. A talented organizer, he mandated quarantines, saw to the cleaning of city streets and arranged for the hungry to be fed. He rewrote his will designating the Ca’ Granda as his sole beneficiary. But as necessary as these pragmatic actions were, Borromeo was determined that the city should offer a religious response as well. So he planned three grand processions, three acts of public and collective penance that would both beg God for relief and renew the solidarity of the frightened populace.

He planned three grand processions, three acts of public and collective penance that would both beg God for relief.

Milan
Taking in the views of Milan (Credit: Patrick Gilger, S.J.)

They were arresting events. Beginning at the Duomo, in the heart of the city, thousands of Milanese citizens processed together through the streets, reciting penitential psalms as they went. Walking barefoot and wearing the noose of a condemned criminal, Borromeo himself led each of these processions, carrying before him one of the Holy Nails that legend holds was pulled from the True Cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine. And while the sight of the cardinal dressed in sackcloth was, by all accounts of the historians upon whose records we rely, remarkable, it was the sound of the pilgrimage that was most striking. Because as they processed, they sang.

It was a litany that they sang, a simple, repetitive chant imploring the intercession of the saints. Sancta Maria, the cantor would cry. Ora pro nobis, the people would respond. And then the name of another saint, Ambrose or Monica or Augustine, would be called and the ora pro nobis would again ring through the streets. And so on.

They are plain songs, litanies, straightforward and repetitive, almost democratic in their capacity to include all voices. As only a simple song can do, litanies draw us together in a common action; they push us toward something, like a father standing behind us at a swing set. Which is why they are still sung today, at the Easter Vigil, for example, or at the ordination of priests, or at baptisms—all the occasions at which the whole church, living and dead, on earth as it is in heaven, is gathered.

Long before human beings understood the germs that cause plagues, we had realized that contagion could only be managed by distance.

The processions were without a doubt powerful. But even in the 16th century, long before human beings understood the germs that cause plagues, we had realized that contagion could only be managed by distance. Which is why Borromeo quickly suspended the processions. He sent people home; asked them to shelter in place.

And while the processions stopped, the litanies did not. Instead Borromeo had small booklets with the litany printed and distributed so that, for as long as the quarantine lasted, these separated people could find some kind of community through them. So it was that in quarantined Milan, for nearly a year and a half, every few hours the church bells would ring and people would step to their windows and doorways. And they would sing.

“Just think,” wrote Paulo Bisciola, whose Relatione Verissima describes those months of plague, “in walking around Milan, one heard nothing but song.”

•••

I went to see St. Charles’s body in the chapel below the high altar of the Duomo on a Thursday afternoon, two days before my fever began. I went to bed that Saturday night with the hollow, clammy feeling we get when we are begging our bodies not to get sick. On Sunday morning I knew the truth of the matter.

There were, thank God, only three of us in attendance at the Mass that morning. I huddled in the back of our tiny house chapel and clenched my teeth to keep them from rattling. Father Bagatti presided, his purple and gold chasuble throwing the light of the morning sun into my eyes. I did not take the cup.

It was no great sacrifice to remain isolated in my room those days.

It was no great sacrifice to remain isolated in my room those days. With the benefit of hindsight, and out of love for these elderly men who have welcomed me so well, I wish I had started two days sooner.

On Monday I call a friend. This friend is a physician, an infectious disease specialist at a major American university hospital. But more than that he is one of those rare people, the kind some few of us are fortunate enough to have, before whom I do not have to be strong. I tell him what is happening, lean the dead weight of my anxiety upon him. And he—all heart, all heart—holds me up.

Even there in Milan, he tells me, even though you are there, you probably do not have the coronavirus. And even if you do, you are young, you are healthy: you will be fine. Take some medicine. Rest. Call me if something changes. But probably you do not have it.

Listening to him, I take one breath. And then another, deeper. And I ask: What must I do in the meantime?

I have known this man for two decades, since we were 19 years old and doing the things that 19 year-olds do. Now, in response to my question, his voice is soft, direct, calm. This is what you must do, he says. Stay in your room. It doesn’t matter whether you have the coronavirus. Stay in your room. You will be fine, but it is not you who are in danger. Stay in your room.

I nod in agreement before remembering that he cannot see me. I say out loud that I will do as he instructs.

It is not so difficult, it turns out, to be obedient to what is required.

It is not so difficult, it turns out, to be obedient to what is required. I have. We are. The thing we are struggling with is not the courage to keep our distance; we are learning to share that much. But even shared anxiety ends in isolation.

“Stay in your room” is not precisely a litany, but neither is it so different. It tells us what to do and points us in a direction. And we know how to repeat it, like a mantra, to ourselves. But, thus far at least, it is only a call and not yet a response.

It is the singing that is lacking. Perhaps we have forgotten how. Perhaps we have not yet been taught.

Outside the windows of my room are dozens of apartments, many with small balconies. Their iron railings are clothed in the greenery of early spring or painted stark white to sharpen the contrast with the tile roofs. In many cities the Italians, as perhaps you have seen, are singing to each other from just such balconies.

I would love to say that I have heard them singing from the balconies within view of my room. I have not. What I have heard instead are ambulances on the empty streets—the sound of care being brought to those who are suffering.

They are the sound of help. Still, sirens are no ora pro nobis.

•••

It is the next Sunday. Noon. My fever has broken. All the rest in the house, thank God, are still healthy.

Milan is gray and silent. I walk to my window to look at the city I cannot touch. Across the piazza where the teenagers would sing there is a boy, no more than 12 stepping with his sister onto their balcony. He holds a golden trumpet. He looks at her, smiles; raises it to his lips.

The sound rolls across the empty piazza below. Reverberates among the mute apartment buildings.
He is not good. Not yet.
But none refuse his gift. No wagging fingers emerge to scold him.
It is an unmistakable sound, life.
Chi vivra, vedra.
The one who lives will see.

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