NOTE: This story is part of “Together/Alone,” a column from Spectrum News Chief National Political Reporter Josh Robin that explores life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The other day in Milan, just as Italy surpassed China in the Coronavirus death count, a priest posted a prayer on the door of a small church. It was addressed to Sebastian, the sainted protector against the plague.
“May his intervention be powerful again,” it said.
Milan, Italy’s second-largest city, has seen waves of communicable disease, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The plague, a bacteria, repeated in Europe that entire millennium. You might have seen the grotesque renderings of the dead scooped into carts, and the living beseeching God to restrain the invisible spirits that disfigure and kill.
A prayer and a reminder, posted to the door of the Civic Temple of Saint Sebastian in Milan. (Photo via Vera Chiozzotto)
We know much about today’s malady. Experts also know what it takes to slow this virus: severe, painful quarantines — probably for up to three months — allowing hospitals to normalize while we produce protective equipment and make progress on a vaccine and treatment.
The science is there. But whether humans apply it, I’m not confident. And even if we do, I ache at the pain, especially for those caught without a cushion in this cratering economy.
So with so much unmoored, I find myself peering within for traces of faith and hope.
I turn to the quarantined city of Milan and a priestly prayer on the door to Saint Sebastian. I’m not a Catholic, and not about to become a proselytizer, either. I’m just another jumble of human biology with a phone that won’t stop shaking with alerts and texts.
“And may it grant us God's clemency,” the prayer continued, “for the end of this new and unrestrained epidemic, even if we may have been ungrateful and precariously devoted.”
Saint Sebastian was an early Christian in an era of persecution, sentenced twice to death. At the first execution, he was shot at with arrows, only to survive.
It’s thought this is why he became the patron saint protecting against the plague, because in pagan belief pestilence was “delivered by arrows shot by the gods above.”
The exterior and interior of the Civic Temple of Saint Sebastian in Milan. (Left photo via Wikimedia Commons; Right photo via Enrico Engelmann)
He is the namesake of the church whose full name, like most things, sounds better in Italian: “Civico Tempio di San Sebastiano.” A plaque reads in part: “This civic holy temple, sacred to the soldier Saint Sebastian the martyr, who released Milan from the plague in 1576.”
Today, Italy (population 60 million) has already seen more deaths from COVID-19 than China (population 1.4 billion). The church is empty, like the streets. But even when the city was bustling, few went inside the big round building.
“Milan is a big city. As in every big city, people don’t care about religion,” said Vera Chiozzotto, an art historian in Milan, who says that in a city of 2,000 churches, the Milanese know it better as a landmark.
“They say ‘let’s go to the cinema'," Chiozzotto said. “'Which one?' 'The one near the round church'.”
The Duomo in Milan, Italy on February 24, and a month later on March 22. (Photos by AP)
A native Milanese, Chiozzotto gave me a preview of where American cities may be in a couple of weeks.
“It’s very sad looking out the window, looking at the streets without people,” she said of a city with a workaholic reputation, especially by Italian standards. “It’s very silent now. Very, very strange.”
“They’re discovering many things — like cooking at home all together, reading books, doing many things on the web, yoga in small groups and fitness.”
Unlike when the plague lifted in 1576, Chiozzotto doesn’t see a brick and stone monument rising in Milan after COVID-19.
The testament to 2020, she said, may be more subtle.
“Now people are thinking totally differently. I think after the plague people will be more interested in different things — their families maybe. To find more time for the people, the people who need care,” said Chiozzotto. “We have run and run and run and now we don’t have jobs anymore. So maybe it wasn’t that important.”
Lorenza Scorti, a tour guide in Milan who first told me about the church, says she could see a monument in some form. It would be something about an expression posted on the closed front doors all over Italy.
Prayers, of sorts, you could also say.
“Everything will be fine,” they read, although again that sounds better in Italian. “Andra tutto bene.”
Sonny Rollins. I knew little about the jazz icon until I read an interview with him in late February, which seems like five years ago. Then, the outbreak hit and I summoned a package in the early days of quarantine. After dosing the cardboard with sanitizer and flinging the album onto the couch, I put the needle onto “Saxophone Colossus.” I’m not a music writer, and even if I were, my words would be mere noise compared to his notes. But I do know when this is over -- and it will be -- the sound behind memories of isolation and panic will be from Sonny Rollins’ saxophone.
TRAPPED PARENT TIP
Circle Time. We can’t replicate the lost classroom, but we can provide some comforting re-creation of what was lost and what will return. So if you’re kids aren’t on remote learning yet, circle up every weekday morning for a check-in. Try to come up with something similar to what they did at school. Is it asking for a morning report? A song or two? A game or three? A recurring schedule may do them good, not to mention you.