If you have any doubt on the emotional toll that coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken on the people of Rome, try taking a walk, said Father Greg Apparcel, CSP.
“People are afraid,” admitted the Paulist priest and rector of St. Patrick’s Catholic American Church near the heart of the Eternal City. “When I walk on the sidewalk, some people move to the street to avoid me. Many people wear masks. I don’t know where they buy them because the stores don’t have them or Purell anymore.”
And when he or any of his parish staff go out to a store for food or to the pharmacy for medicine, “we have to carry with us an Auto Certification stating that we know the risk of being exposed to the virus and we take that responsibility. At the church, we are not allowed to celebrate public Masses, as is now the case in Los Angeles, but we have been asked to open our church each day for public prayer.”
Located not far from the Borghese Gardens, St. Patrick Church (Chiesa de San Patrizio a Villa Ludovisi) is the spiritual home-away-from-home to hundreds of American worshippers who live in Rome, including families of the nearby U.S. Embassies to Italy, the Holy See, and the U.N. agencies.
And during this challenging time in which the coronavirus has decimated much of Italy (nearly 36,000 cases and 3,000 deaths nationwide as of March 18), Father Apparcel — a Southern California native and UCLA alumnus who has served in Rome for most of the past 25 years — and his staff are doing what they can to spiritually serve their community.
“We are recording our Masses, with music by our parish musicians, and putting them out on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo and LinkedIn,” said Father Apparcel, the former vice-president of Paulist Productions in Los Angeles.
“For Masses we have been using the Chapel of St. Paul in our rectory, a very small space. But it works. We tried to do this in the church, but the acoustics made it difficult. However, if it comes to recording Holy Week services we will definitely figure out a way of doing this in the church. We also have a Zoom-live Mass for the Marymount International School Community on Sunday mornings at 11. And we’ve had extraordinary help from the Paulists in Washington, D.C., and New York.”
Father Apparcel and his vice rector, Paulist Father Steve Petroff of Michigan, come to the church in shifts and are available as needed. But they have asked all parish employees — two sacristans, parish secretary, music director and cantors, housekeeper and chef — to stay home.
“They will be paid their normal salaries, of course,” Father Apparcel said, “but I don’t want them exposed, as they come long distances on public transportation. It is hard for them; they want to be here.”
St. Patrick’s parishioners have also experienced hardship from being forced to stay away from the church and virtually all outside activity. “Schools are out and our religious education program is suspended,” noted Father Apparcel. “We are trying to stay connected, but it is difficult for many of our people.
“A parishioner called me the other day to tell me that her mother had passed away in Venice [not from the coronavirus] and she was on her way there. She was very upset, mainly because of the loss of her mother at age 72, but also because funerals are not allowed at this time. She will have to wait until this crisis is over.”
And as someone with roots outside of Italy — he was born in Alhambra and attended Nativity School in South El Monte, St. Luke School in Temple City and La Salle High School in Pasadena — Father Apparcel said he is aware of what his parishioners are experiencing.
“I feel the distance and the loneliness,” he said. “It is difficult for those of us from the U.S. and other countries who miss our families, who are so far away. However, Father Steve has been a godsend, as have my Paulist brothers and all those in our extended Paulist family who have been incredibly supportive. Now we have to be supportive to all of them.”
Replying to inquiries via email on March 18, Father Apparcel noted that “today we are going to attempt to livestream Evening Prayer, but we’re worried because our Wi-Fi is sometimes shaky. And then on Friday [March 20] we are going to try to record [the] Stations of the Cross in the church. Supposedly, this will end on April 3. However, I have a strong feeling that we will not be able to have public Holy Week services or Easter Sunday.”
Yet even in troubled times, Father Apparcel said that the Sunday Gospel readings of Lent can offer both comfort and hope to the faithful.
“Jesus is with us,” he said, “listening and talking to us like he was with the woman at the well. He is saying, ‘I am the Living Water, and you are Living Water for each other. You are not alone. I am with you and you are with each other.’
“Jesus is with us like he was with the man born blind. We ask him to heal us, to heal those with the virus, to be with those who have died, and to be with us in fear and anxiety. Help us to see clearly who we are and to recognize the needs that those around us have.
“Jesus will give us new life like he gave to Lazarus. We are experiencing his suffering and death, and now we look with hope to the resurrection. We will come out of this.”