As pandemic spreads, Italy’s south turns to Pope Francis, saints

Positive coronavirus cases have started to grow in Italy’s very religious south, where high levels of unemployment and organized crime complicate the application of stringent rules to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Positive coronavirus cases have started to grow in Italy’s very religious south, where high levels of unemployment and organized crime complicate the application of stringent rules to prevent the spread of the pandemic. In some southern cities, fights have started to break out and people have been robbed while leaving the supermarket.

While the threat of the virus makes its way down the Italian peninsula, many have turned to their faith for sustenance.

The island of Sicily, located just off the tip of the Italian boot-shaped coastline, is a region characterized by its strong Catholic faith, often expressed in colorful and crowded processions where statues of saints are paraded through the city under an explosion of garlands and confetti.

Shortly after the Italian government placed the entire country in lockdown on March 9, Italian bishops asked faithful not to convene in large crowds for Mass, to forgo weddings and funerals and to suspend all religious precessions.


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“We know well that a situation like that of northern Italy would be a bit of a challenge for us, especially concerning our health care system,” said Carmelo Romeo, a surgeon and pediatrician in the Sicilian city of Messina, during an interview with Religion News Service on Wednesday (April 1).

While the south can benefit from the experience of the north, “many hospitals in the south are not ready” to handle the consequences of the virus, he said.

Romeo is also a member of the Knights of Malta, a lay religious order involved in numerous charitable efforts, and spends his Sunday evenings volunteering to help the poor and elderly.

“There is a great sense of concern and uncertainty,” he said. “Obviously, this situation of being locked in the house for a month or more generates fear, especially about the economic impact.”

The island of Sicily, red, in southern Italy. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

One-third of the Italian population lives in the southern part of the country, but the gross domestic product per person is only one-fourth of the country’s total, according to government data. The south of Italy has the highest number of unemployed, the highest poverty levels and disparity index.

Southern Italy is also the home to many forms of organized crime.

“Crooks, who are struggling now because they can no longer continue their regular activity, end up creating forms of civil unrest like the muggings and robberies we have witnessed recently,” Romeo said.

According to Italy’s statistics agency, Istat, the number of crimes in the country has drastically diminished since the quarantine was put in place. The number of crimes from March 1-20 plummeted to barely over 50,000, compared with the almost 150,000 of 2019 during the same time period.

“There was only one robbery in (the Sicilian town of) Catania this month,” said pharmacist and catechism teacher Patrizia Tornabene in an interview Thursday with RNS. “Usually there are many more.”

Even so, Sicily remains among the regions with the highest number of crimes.

Without its typical religious processions and Easter festivities, Sicilians have looked for new ways to live out their devotion. A collective of artists in the city of Palermo, Ex Voto, has begun to project images of St. Rosalia wearing a mask all over the city.

“Not all of us are religious, but Saint Rosalia in Palermo transcends the religious aspect and is considered a bit of a civic saint,” the organizers of the event told RNS via Facebook.

Over 300,000 people usually celebrate the saint in July with processions and parades. St. Rosalia is revered in Palermo due to the common belief that she appeared in 1625 to relieve the city from the plague. The small Tamil community of Hindus from Sri Lanka in Sicily also venerates the saint.

A projection of St. Rosalia, wearing a face mask, on a residential building in Palermo, Sicily, in southern Italy. Photo courtesy of Ex Voto Collective Palermo

“She’s a saint who unites everyone,” the organization said. “Saint Rosalia is Palermo and Palermo is Saint Rosalia.”

More and more priests in Italy have started saying Mass live on social media, so faithful may follow from their homes. Pope Francis has been livestreaming his morning Mass at Domus Santa Marta, where he lives, which has been a source of comfort to the faithful in the south.

“I follow the pope’s Mass at Santa Marta every day,” Tornabene said, adding that many others don’t miss the morning appointment with the pope.

The images of Pope Francis blessing the world, alone and under the rain, in St. Peter’s Square on March 27 inspired faithful and nonfaithful all over the world. As Sicily grapples with the threat of the coronavirus, the image was met with a sense of hope.

“It was an incredible moment,” Tornabene said. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it now.”

For Romeo the image of the pope represented “an unthinkable moment that resembled the end of the world.”

“With great faith and hope we pray that this gesture will help us get through this difficult moment,” he said.