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Fr. Santo, chaplain of a hospital in Bologna, witnesses a great desire for God among the sick, doctors, and nurses during the Covid emergency.

Fr. Santo Merlini

My name is Fr. Santo Merlini, I belong to the Fraternity of Saint Charles and since 2013 I’ve been the chaplain of Sant’Orsola Hospital. The situation of the pandemic has called me to a new step and a new beginning, in the span of a few days the hospital has assumed a new face and I wasn’t able to do my work in the same way I could before, in front of many people sick and alone, in front of so many that die without their loved ones. Different wards of the hospital had to equip themselves in order to confront a situation for which they weren’t prepared, so that the surgical, ENT, emergency, and other departments transformed into COVID wards, having to rethink the entire department. Then in the span of a few days they put in place exceptional intensive therapy to respond to the growing need.

Little by little, even without knowing these departments being that I worked prevalently for the pediatric and OB wards, I searched for ways to enter in, pushed by our Bishop whom I thank for sustaining and encouraging me. I speak with him almost every evening and he is very concerned for the many patients who are alone, he pushes me to not stop in front of the difficulties that I encounter.

I began to visit the COVID intensive therapy patients and I was immediately struck by the doctors’ and nurses’ desire to take a short break to say a prayer. At my invitation to pray the personnel stopped, making the sign of the cross to pray with me. Finding almost all of the patients in a sedated state I blessed them and I pronounced the formula for extreme absolution. Then little by little I am getting to know some of the head nurses in order to organize my time and activity in the department. I began to enter into some COVID wards, only some, but it’s an important start while sometimes I receive calls from other wards from people who desire to receive the comfort of the sacraments.

Entering into the COVID ward is very tiring, you need to undergo to many laborious procedures of dressing and undressing, often even more than once in the same ward to go from one room to another. When you have all of those clothes on you sweat a lot and the two masks that you have to wear make it difficult to breath. It’s a struggle that I share with the doctors, nurses and social workers that have to wear those clothes for many more hours than I do. But I was struck by the desire for God that I found in the people that I visited. Almost all of them desired to say a prayer with me, the many elderly but also the younger patients, that are much more that we would expect. It’s not true that the virus only affects the elderly.

Sometimes we think that there’s no more faith, that no one desires to pray anymore. I hear it said often even by people of the Church. In these past few weeks I’ve seen that there’s a great desire for God, a desire that emerges strongly in the fragile condition of an illness that forces you to be alone for many days and surrounded only by suits and masks that make those around you unrecognizable. I was struck by the witness of one patient’s suffering – an over-eighty-year-old that lost her husband, him as well for the coronavirus, with which she had been together since they were 16. They spent an entire life together but at the moment of their separation they found themselves alone, in two different wards. While the other day a sick woman continued to ask me “God didn’t forget me, right?” I was there to tell her and the other patients that God hadn’t forgotten them, that in fact through their suffering they are closer to Him.

To make myself recognizable I draw with a marker or tape a cross on my scrubs and in this way people recognize me as a priest. Some patients, upon seeing me, have said “Finally!” I administer the collective absolution to the eldest or most critical patients, inviting them to confess themselves as soon as possible.

This work is asking me to sacrifice from a personal standpoint as well, the first of which consists in having gone to live by myself, depriving me of the companionship of my brothers Fr. Peppino and Fr. Marco. The fact that I’m doing this work for obedience, not for a desire to be heroic, comforts me. It wasn’t my idea to enter into the hospitals, and a year ago I would’ve never thought to find myself in a real and true battlefield, in which I have to defend myself from the attack of the mortal enemy: the virus. I feel myself one who simply responds to his obligation. I find, however, a great support in the presence of some doctor and nurse friends, with whom I share different moments of my day and especially a moment of prayer together every day. We are careful to respect the distances as the rules say: a distance, though, that is eliminated by the decisiveness of our prayer. Their presence reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not the only one risking my skin to bring a little bit of comfort to the sick. There are the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, but also all of the cleaning and maintenance staff that heroically risk getting sick in order to put their lives in service of the sick.

Easter Sunday is a day of decision. ‘The women‘, so scripture tells us, decided to go an annoint Jesus’ body with ‘perfumes and ointments‘. Their Sabbath of rest provoked a decision and an action. The purpose of stillness and rest is that we determine to make our way to Jesus. Perhaps it is with a heart heavy with disappointment like these women. What we had imagined was true about God we can no longer believe in. Yet, our fondness for the memory means that we treat it with respect, even in its death and disappearance from our world of apprehension.

Yet, what they expected to find, a sealed tomb, was not what they saw. The entrance stone was rolled away. They confronted a whole new reality. Questions flooded in. Where was the body? Who had taken it? Who had broken the Sabbath rules and ‘worked’ to remove both stone and body, breaking the religious law and rythm of rest and stillness?

Such questions created the threshold upon which fresh opportunity is always born. They rightly resisted a search for immediate answers to satisfy their questioning minds. Rather, they chose to wonder what this might mean. They pondered, they contemplated, they meditated; the best way to live within the space born of stillness, silence and solitude. The characteristics we are invited to explore in this period of lockdown.

Returning to the eleven disciples they told their story, which was met with incredulity, disbelief. So some of them rushed to the tomb to satisfy themselves. Doubt can prove the necessary stimulus to awakening fresh faith. Doubt and disbelief are the friends of faith seekers who face an uncertain future. They are the compost and the fertiliser for fresh growth. The first shoots of which are wonder, astonishment and awe.

It is only as the circles of our certainties are breached that we stand any chance of finding fresh understaning. An understanding that has the capacity to carry us through the day that lies before us. It is the reason Jesus so strongly demanded that NOW is the only moment that natters. Yesterday, with its fond memories and sad regrets, is long past. Whilst tomorrow, with its imagined fears, has yet to arrive. I, and you are marooned within the present moment alone. So our thoughts, constructed by memories of our past and fears for our futures, conspire to distract us from this present moment.

The discovery of an empty tomb was a present reality. It’s meaning or consequences unknown. Yet, Jesus’ erstwhile followers responded from their hearts, with wonder, amazement and astonishment. Something with unknown consequences is always best pondered.

Had a twenty first century media circus arrived upon the scene the good people of Jerusalem and beyond would have been subjected to the views and analysis of endless experts, whose credentials, albeit flashed across TV screens, offer little by way of reassurance that they know anything more than the facts themselves tell me. The noise created by so many voices, disperses the stillness and drowns out any sense of wonder.  Such media easily steals my imagination and populates it with ideas, no doubt well meant, but which have their own irrevocable logic. They bind me and restrict my movement and action.

Today, I personally choose to stand before that open tomb, with the women and the disciples, in an attitude of wonder. The stone rolled away challenges all my assumptions of what I might expect. I can decide to settle for a logic born of the wisdom of others. I can decide to weave my own coherent narrative joining the past, which I’ve observed, with the evidence before me in the present with a proposal about the future, born of my reason. But I choose not to do so.

I gaze upon the the open tomb and allow my imagination to consider that this is a door into an as yet unknown future. One in which I do not seek to satisfy my own need for answers, but one in which I decide to continue asking questions. For if the one who was dead is alive, how can he die again? And if alive, must the imagination draw any line as to what is now possible? I find myself pondering a range of possibilities, none of which I can apprehend until and unless I choose to decide to set out in pursuit of them.

Easter Sunday is the day in history when the world changed. It became different. I too am invited to change. To exchange my spectacles, through which I view life and determine shapes and identities, for a new pair. To consider exchanging the life I’ve known for a different, if quite similar one. To become altogether different in the way I will live from now on. All change requires my decision. No one and nothing changes me. I alone have the capacity to make changes in the way I think and perceive.

I believe it was only because the disciples chose to wonder and to ponder that they were enabled to meet the risen Jesus. Whilst Mary initially perceived Jesus as the gardener, and assumed he might have removed Jesus’ body, it was only as she recognised and responded to a familiar voice that she was able to perceive Jesus. For many of us we all too easily embrace the logic of misbelief and unbelief. In so doing we dismiss the sounds that awaken new neural pathways within our understanding and, in dismissing such sounds, fail to perceive the risen Christ.

The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty. Today suggests that we have everything to play for in an as yet unrealised tomorrow.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

 

Voice is an initiative organised by Cel Thom and Micha Jazz inviting those over 55 years of age to engage with their destiny in God. In a culture that often fails to value the ageing, it offers a vital component in supporting individuals, couples and groups to identify and realise God’s purpose for them in serving the Kingdom of God in the earth.

On Tuesday July 30, we shall be holding our first gathering in Yapton, West Sussex. For specific details please email Micha.

We shall start our morning at 9:30 and conclude with lunch at 13:00. Clel and Micha will explain their vision and there will be space for conversation, questions and prayer. This we trust will offer encouragement and a deepening of our friendship with God and establish new friendships among ourselves.

A warm welcome awaits you. If you live too far away then contact us as we seek to encourage those of us entering this important season in life and explore how Voice might serve you in your community.

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