WHITE: In Rome, living in the midst of a horror movie

April 14, 2020

I felt as if I was living a horror movie. This feeling hit me when I was living in Italy during the outbreak of COVID-19. I specifically remember feeling this when I went shopping for groceries just days after the lockdown in Rome went into effect.

The people, the cars, the noise and life that continually filled the streets of Rome were gone. I had never seen Rome so empty and so quiet. The few people that I did see had their faces covered and their eyes were full of fear.

As I arrived at the grocery store, I saw that the end of the line just to get into the store was about a hundred yards from the entrance. Everyone was at least six feet apart from each other. There was a girl who exited the store and she scuffled past us intentionally facing her back towards us so as not to breathe the air surrounding us. I was astonished to see the Italian people acting this way. These are the same people who do not seem to understand the concept of personal space.

For instance, if you are at a movie theatre, the idea of spreading out when only half the tickets have been purchased does not occur to them.

Furthermore, their standard greeting is not a handshake, but a kiss on each cheek; and, although these practices originally made the inner American in me uncomfortable, I had begun to really appreciate the affectionate Italian culture so much so that when I did not see any sign of this affection on my outing to the grocery store, there was a sadness in my heart. Something was clearly awry. A culture that is deeply influenced by the reality that man is interdependent on one another was broken apart by the growing pandemic.

As I was standing in line reflecting on this unique point of Roman history, I noticed a bus pass by on the street, which on any typical day would have had standing room only. But that day only had one woman who looked as horrified looking at us in line as I felt looking at her alone on the bus. At that moment, I felt the opening scene had just ended of what felt like a horror movie, and the anxiety over what the next scenes would bring set in.

I now find myself almost a month later in the United States reliving that opening scene with a different setting. The anxiety still remains, and the ending is as obscure as it was one month ago. In prayer, I have often found myself asking the inevitable questions of: “why, when, how?” Although no answers have come, I have become more and more confident in how I am supposed to respond to this current situation.

First, I must respond with trust. Trust that God sees this pandemic, and He sees the ending. In His Goodness, He knows that He can work this great evil into an even greater good. This trust often manifests itself only as me asking God to help me and to give me the grace to trust that He will bring about a great good from this suffering.

Second, all I can concretely do is pray, and thus, I have an obligation to pray and implore that the Lord send us a vaccine and end this plague.

Finally, I am invited to give thanks for all the little things and blessings that I take for granted — friendship, people in the streets, noise and more. The presence and blessing of these things have become clear as they have been removed from my life both in Italy and in the United States.

Even though I cannot see the ending, and I do not know who “stars” as the inventor of the vaccine, I can decide how I will respond each day to this continually developing story. This response, through the grace of God, will provide me with the stability to live through this turbulent and scary time in history.

Joseph White is a seminarian who was studying at the Pontifical North American College. His home parish is St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Lake Jackson.