Monsignor John Boyle, the current Rector of Domus Australia in Rome, writes about a very different Easter experience in the Eternal City.
Easter was different this year. Throughout the world, Christians celebrated Easter as best they could. Here in Rome, with all the churches closed, with no one on the streets, but with beautiful Easter weather, we celebrated the ancient Paschal mysteries via television and the internet.
There was an irony in hearing the sound of church bells summoning the faithful to Easter Sunday Mass but knowing that ceremonies were taking place in those huge basilicas behind securely locked doors. The coronavirus death toll on Easter Day in Italy was over 500, with the number of new officially registered infections in Italy on Easter Day reaching 2,972. This alone was motivation to keep to the rules of physical distancing and staying indoors. Unlike Sydney, where people have limited freedom to be outside their place of residence, Rome is in total lockdown.
On Good Friday, one of our neighbours was taken to hospital. The ambulance came and the men got out in full hazmat gear, watched on by shut-ins in adjoining apartments. This is too close for comfort and underlies the ever-present coronavirus threat right on our doorstep.
Good Friday in this still very Catholic country is not a public holiday. So the Good Friday 3pm Liturgy is transferred to 6pm Good Friday night in Italy. That is 2am Sydney time the following day. A night later, inside a darkened St Peter’s Basilica, the Paschal fire was lit in front of the main high papal altar.
I watched on the television with some fear and trepidation because when the Lighting of the New Fire took place in my former parish of St Bernadette’s, Castle Hill, the smoke detectors were activated with the loudest ear-piercing scream, accompanied by a siren, an event that was never envisaged in the rubrics for Holy Saturday. It had to be understood as a contemporary way of announcing ‘the Lord is Risen’. Parishioners were still suffering from Meniere’s the next morning.
Lighting even a modest fire in a parish church with trained acolytes and servers at the ready with fire extinguishers is a different proposition from the mini bonfire that was in evidence on Holy Saturday night in St Peter’s Basilica. Who knows where the firefighting equipment is in St Peter’s, but I prayed that there would not be another Notre Dame.
We are accustomed to seeing a deaf interpreter on our television screens. He or she is sometimes in a square box usually on the right-hand side of the screen and will sign for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing during any television interview. An Auslan interpreter has become de rigueur with the ubiquitous Australian press conferences reporting on COVID-19. So it came to pass that I was overjoyed to see an interpreter appear in a box on the screen during the Rome Holy Saturday ceremonies.
At a liturgically safe distance from the Holy Father, it was impressive seeing a religious sister keeping up with the deacon singing the Exsultet, a fifth century poem sung in praise of the paschal candle and all it symbolises. The lengthy hymn was sung in Latin and I do not know if the sister was signing in Latin for the hard-of-hearing cardinals present (in social-distancing mode in the basilica), or she was signing in another language. No one has been able to tell me.
Father Luca Infantino, the only other priest living in Domus Australia, celebrated Mass with me on Easter Sunday. The two Domus employees-in-residence joined us for Mass. While there were only four of us in the chapel, we streamed Mass using video conferencing software Zoom into the Netherlands and into Sydney. The first reading was in English from Baulkham Hills, the second in Dutch from Gemone in the Netherlands and the Sequence in Italian from the Domus Australia chapel.
In line with the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium, there was full, conscious and active participation by all who were engaged in the video conference. As distinct from watching a religious ceremony on other media, a Zoom congregation are not silent on-lookers; they are participants. We had a few technical glitches. For instance, we had trouble contacting someone we left in the waiting room and that delayed the start of Mass, and there was a time-out during the Our Father – apparently, I had preached too long – but this videotelephony allows one to reconnect easily. There is an eschatological dimension to the programme too, because Zoom is cloud based! The Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) would never have envisaged such an ability to overcome obstacles of distance, language and race to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
The two young Italian employees living in the pilgrimage centre with us decided that on Easter Monday, called Pasquetta, little Easter, we would have a barbeque. It was to be Aussie-style, to address any homesickness I was experiencing. It was set up on the terrace of Domus Australia. This is a grand open air space with boxed roses just now coming into bloom. I noticed some insects on the newly blooming roses. Even the aphids made me long for home. After some explanation about what a real Aussie barbeque is about, the food, the drink, the dress code, I was looking forward with real nostalgia to this experience.
These young Italians had heard about stubbies and thongs, and I was expected to wear them. It was a little chilly four stories up on the roof so I was dressed sensibly in tracksuit pants, black lace up orthopaedic walking shoes, sunnies, hat, a clerical shirt whose service life had come to an end, and a cardigan. Men in Italy have yet to discover the cardigan. Mine has a button missing and two quite useless side pockets. In other words, I was dressed and ready for a genuine Aussie barbeque.
But it was to be a disappointment. The barbeque was in a shed. Who cooks a barbeque in a shed? (Well, maybe during a total fire ban.) In addition, the barbeque plate was spotlessly clean and heated by electricity. I think they saw my disappointment and I explained that usually the barbeque is powered by gas, which has a habit of running out during the final stages of the cooking. I explained how there is nothing quite like the thrill associated with the Aussie barbeque catching alight on the fifth attempt with a boom to rival a car-bombing. (Those piezo ignitors never work.) This is always accompanied by the acrid smell of singed hair.
The hotplate usually has quite a bit of grease left over from previous barbeques. The little tin to catch the fat dripping from the sausages was missing. In fact, there were no snags at all, but a delicacy they called hamburger meat. Try eating that without tomato sauce. It is also normal in Sydney to have one or two live cockroaches run across the plate as it heats up. A genuine cast-iron hotplate from Bunnings has just enough rust on it after years of faithful service to make the food interesting, and a solid old-style plate will give the necessary 8.7 mg a day needed as iron intake, if you consider rust as a food supplement. The prawns were the biggest I have ever seen. They were delicious. The wine was a local rosé presented to me in a chilled glass. But I missed the smell of the onions, the Golden Circle pineapple rings, and the red beetroot stains on the tablecloth.
Their efforts to make me feel at home was taken to extremes when they asked about music from my youth. Having listened to, and being moved by Andrea Bocelli singing in coronavirus-ridden Milan the day before, it was certainly a change of pace to be hearing Bill Haley and the Comets booming out over the Domus Australia terrazzo. How did they find the soundtrack? I was surprised that I remembered the words to See You Later Alligator. The words never leave you, like the Latin words of Benediction hymns.
These two young people’s thoughtfulness, care and understanding about how the coronavirus pandemic quarantine measures are affecting me with a possibility that it will be months before I am able to return to Australia, is remarkable. I became quite emotional. Young Italians might have their faults, but love and care for others, especially the stranger living in a foreign land, are among their strongest Christian virtues. Their ability to celebrate the holy feast of Easter within the confines of this pilgrim house, with a pandemic raging outside, is nothing but awe-inspiring.
Monsignor John Boyle, is the current Rector of Domus Australia, Rome. He has been Parish Priest at Sacred Heart Parish, Westmead, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Seven Hills and St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill. His term at Domus Australia finishes at the end of this month.