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10 Mar, 2020 19:09

Is it really caring? Pope Francis tells clergy to go to sick people, defying Italy’s coronavirus lockdown

Is it really caring? Pope Francis tells clergy to go to sick people, defying Italy’s coronavirus lockdown

As Italy scrambles to enact strict quarantine measures to stem the rampant spread of the coronavirus, Pope Francis is issuing a very different directive to the priests under his command: get out and be with those who are sick.

At a personal mass on Tuesday morning, and as Italy enters a complete lockdown, the Holy See implored clergymen to “have the courage to go out and go to the sick people.” The Pope’s remarks starkly contradict all the core advice administered by the Italian government – namely to stay home and not to travel unless it’s a medical emergency. With the highest death toll outside of mainland China – hiking from 463 to 631 on Tuesday – Italy is rightly concerned that it could become the super-spreader of Europe.

So why has arguably the most influential religious leader on the planet shunned the expert advice and sent his priests out into this new world of contagion? Well, no-one is quite sure. On other occasions, Francis has been exceedingly health-conscious. He has missed several engagements, live-streamed his general audience events and even ordered a cut-back on the mass gathering of pilgrims. But with today’s short remarks, the Pope has laid waste both to the safety of his own priests and to the many others who may catch the virus as a result of the ministry visits.

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The Pope’s comments speak of a depressingly common thread running through the response of many religious groups to the Covid-19 outbreak. In South Korea, the enigmatic leader of an obscure Christian sect was forced to apologize after failing to heed the advice of public health officials. Lee Man-hee’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus allegedly rejected the use of face masks and snubbed officials’ requests for information on infected members. Many of those infected refused to undergo testing because of their belief that sickness is inherently sinful. They believe illness to be an offense to God because it prevents them from doing His work.

Some 4,000 of the church’s congregants are said to have caught the virus, and Lee is likely to face charges of gross negligence.

Then there’s the case of the Washington DC-based clergyman who snubbed the CDC’s advice, continuing to serve communion from a shared chalice and shaking the hands of his parishioners. He later tested positive for the disease, and more than 500 worshippers have been instructed to self-isolate.

Oh, and the church organist has now been diagnosed with the virus, too.

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Many people of faith who ignore the secular medical rules may believe God could take the coronavirus away in an instant, and few would argue that this would be a wonderful thing if it did happen. But until that moment, believers would be wise to listen to the experts, to take the necessary precautions and to think of their neighbors’ wellbeing as much as their own.

Pope Francis talks a lot about how people of faith should always seek to be compassionate and caring towards one another. Unfortunately, sending clergy into a situation that may perpetuate the spread of a deadly disease shows a clear lack of care and wisdom.

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