Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City, by John Henderson, is a fascinating book, not least for its chapter on how the Church in Florence handled the plague of 1630. Henderson’s thesis, briefly, is that during the plague period “what characterised Florence’s religious reactions was the strong cooperation between Church and state” (149).

Despite the threat of the plague, Masses in Florence initially continued to be held. Preaching at the Duomo (Cathedral) focused on the plague as a punishment for sins (149-151). But “once plague had been identified as having begun in the city from the middle of August, public assemblies were frowned upon by the public health board, since they were seen as increasing the spread of disease. The Sanità intervened in what might be thought of as more properly ecclesiastical matters, banning, for example, lay religious confraternities from meeting.” (152).

The archbishop proceeded to institute new rules in cooperation with the Sanità: The doors of the Duomo were to be locked, “except for two side entrances, to prevent people collecting in crowds” (153). “Special rules were also imposed for confession. Priests were told to keep the popolo at a distance, wooden rails were built around the confessionals and inside them a curtain of parchment was hung up to create a barrier between the priest and the public, as they were to be in Rome during the plague epidemic of 1656–7. In this way it was hoped that the breath of any sick person would not ‘offend’ the confessor” (153).

Similar safety precautions were instated for priests visiting the sick. Their clothes were supposed to be made of waxed cloth, as it was thought that wax might provide some stay against contagion (154). “When giving communion in church the priest was told to hold a cloth in front of himself and always to stand between two lit yellow wax tapers, so that the air was purified, and after communion he was to disinfect his fingers with vinegar” (154). A procession invoking the protection of St. Antonino was carefully orchestrated by secular and Church authorities working in concert, limiting those in the procession and allowing for crowds to view it from a distance (158-9).

But “although there was a gradual fall in mortality from the New Year, the appeal to S. Antonino had not been entirely efficacious, for deaths from plague continued. The quarantine of the whole city had thus been instigated to continue the fight of the Sanità against the epidemic. Just as the Grand Duke supported this campaign, so did the Archbishop of Florence, believing in the importance of the continued appeal to God for His clemency” (164).

In the time of general quarantine, “fixed to begin on 20 January, the Feastday of St Sebastian, the plague saint par excellence” (164-5).  The Archbishop “sought and obtained rapidly from Pope Urban VIII indulgences and ‘grazie spirituali’ for the Florentines and, furthermore, the concession that saying ‘una Corona del Signore’ was equivalent to attending Mass for those who were unable to leave their houses during the quarantine. The population was instructed to prepare itself spiritually by confessing and taking communion before the quarantine started and fasting the previous Saturday ‘in order that the Lord, seeing us prepared and clean of the filth of sins, should want to liberate us from the above mentioned contagious sickness’.” (165).

Laity and religious orders were confined to their homes; only parochial clergy were exempt and, “[s]tanding in the street in front of the houses or at their doors, the priests heard confessions on Saturdays and the vigils of the feasts which fell within the period of quarantine” (165). As for Mass, “the Archbishop had also obtained permission from the Pope to allow Mass to be celebrated in the streets of the city” (165).

And here is Henderson’s description of these street Masses:

Every Sunday morning the Holy Sacrament was brought to the temporary altars erected at the street corners. To alert the population that Mass was about to begin a small bell was rung, at which point everybody flocked to their windows and front doors. After Mass was finished the priest sang the hymn ‘Stella Coeli estirpavit’ and the litanies of the Madonna, to which the population responded. In addition to Sunday Mass, the altars on the street corners were the centre for the daily celebration of the Rosary. Local inhabitants participated by kneeling at their windows and doors and singing in response to the priest ‘con voce alta a cori’, concluding with three Pater Nosters and three Ave Marias. This must have been an extraordinary sight and it moved eyewitnesses, as is evident in Francesco Rondinelli’s comment on the scene:

And who had heard an entire city praying at the same time all together, it would have seemed that there was a choir of devout religious, and through the tenderness it was not possible to contain the tears . . . and a most beautiful thing in some roads with poor people to see lights at every window; and all the praises of the Mother of God resounded everywhere; in this way verifying the common proverb that the poor sustain two things better than the rich, that is justice and devotion.  (166)

What can we learn from Renaissance Florence?  For one thing, that to live in a truly Catholic society, where the civil authorities share the faith of most of the members, would have decided advantages from a sacramental perspective! But the historical episode also highlights the flexibility and prudence that the local Church in this case used, following the best medical information available to them at the time.

What does that mean for American Catholics today, in dioceses that have suspended Mass?  Perhaps we need to consider work arounds — not civil disobedience, and not recklessness; rather, perhaps some effort and thought can be used to satisfy the state, the medical advice, and the hunger of souls for the sacraments.

One possible option would be, in essence, drive-in Masses. Would it be possible for parishes to celebrate, even if only on Sundays, an outdoor Mass, “versus parking lot," with parishioners attending in their vehicles (which they would not leave)?  (Apparently at least one parish in northern Italy, was doing something close to this.)

When I suggested this on social media, fellow Catholics were quick with objections. Would people really stay in their cars? I hope so. Would this system not encourage irreverence? I hope not. It’s hardly an unproblematic solution; and it’s not as if anyone is obliged under the current circumstances to attend Mass at all.  But I think there’s a chance that if the Church in America could — in this way or some other — take a page out of the Florentine playbook, it might prove both physically innocuous and spiritually fruitful.