BERGAMO, Italy — Mario Enzler’s mother always wanted a big family.
“My mother wanted twenty children, but got only me,” Enzler said with a laugh.
Enzler, a former Swiss Guard for St. John Paul II, is an Italian expat living in New Hampshire with his wife and five children. He is a professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America.
His octogenarian parents live in the medieval city of Bergamo in northern Italy. They come to the United States to visit quite often, Enzler said, and he said his mother is already excitedly making plans to come and visit the US in July.
Normally, Bergamo’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the home diocese of St. John XXIII. The image of “Papa Giovanni,” as the saint is known, is everywhere.
But in the past few months, the city has garnered the less welcome distinction as an epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
“If, God forbid, anything happens to them, I can’t get there right now,” Enzler said.
In the past week alone, more than 3,000 people have died in Italy after contracting the coronavirus. Among the dead are at least 60 priests this month, according to local media reports.
The Bergamo region has one of the highest rates of infection in Italy, with over 5,000 cases and counting.
The obituary section in the town’s newspaper, L'Eco di Bergamo, is normally 2-3 pages long; now, it is 10-11 pages long every day. The newspaper’s editor recently told the Washington Post that 90% of the deaths— the vast majority of which are elderly people— are due to coronavirus.
The Diocese of Bergamo has reported 20 diocesan priests and two religious who have died so far, and one was a close friend of the Enzler family. Bergamo’s mayor has encouraged the cremation of people who die of COVID-19.
Enzler said he is able to talk to his mother and father daily via video chat, and that they give him almost a daily update on who they know in the city who has died of the virus.
"What is really hard for my parents and for me is that there are no funerals," Enzler told CNA.
"Some of the priests that passed away, my mom and dad had known them for 60 years. And they could not go to the funeral— that's very sad."
Although they are both remaining in their home, isolated from the outside world, Enzler fears for his parents’ safety. His father is diabetic, so he is aware that contracting the virus likely would be lethal for him.
Enzler first spoke to CNA last week; on March 23, Enzler emailed to say that his mother told him that his father is now exhibiting flu-like symptoms, including a fever and a dry cough.
He said there aren’t enough test kits in the city to test everyone exhibiting symptoms, so those with symptoms are instructed to treat the illness like the flu unless it gets much worse.
“Not much I can do from here besides putting everything at the feet of the cross,” Enzler said.
“My dad, despite being diabetic, is a strong man...a lot of people that got sick got well in a week or so, we will never know if they had the virus or not, all it matters they got better and they never abandon their faith.”
Enzler said his father shocked him the other day by telling him that having to rely on the army and other people for his daily needs is actually helping him to “rediscover the meaning of gratitude.”
“Now, I see myself saying thank you more every day to more and different people than I have in many years...coming from my dad, that got me emotional,’ Enzler said.
United in Prayer
Enzler said his parents’ parish has done a good job of leveraging technology to keep the parishioners united in prayer.
Through an email chain, their associate pastor is encouraging his flock to pray prayers such as the rosary simultaneously, according to a schedule. Enzler said every time he talks to his parents on video chat, they are excited to tell him how many rosaries they prayed that day together.
In addition, the Diocese of Bergamo has opened a telephone service that offers free psychological and spiritual counseling and support.
"Look at these old people in Bergamo— throughout the day, isolated in their homes, they are united in prayer in specific moments. How beautiful that is," Enzler observed.
On March 19, Pope Francis requested that all Catholics throughout the world pray a rosary with him at the same time. Enzler said that he suspects that a priest in the pope’s household— a friend of Enzler’s from Bergamo— is keeping the pope updated on the situation in Bergamo and on the simultaneous rosaries the faithful are praying there.
“The media is not talking about the thousands and thousands and thousands of Hail Marys that the elderly Italians are saying on a daily basis...they are praying to Mary, specifically, because they know that she will clean up this mess,” Enzler said.
Enzler said an old Italian proverb is helping to sustain his parents through this trying time: “Non tutti i mali vengono per nuocere,” which roughly translates to "Not all bad things come to damage you." He said the pandemic is teaching people the meaning of redemptive suffering.
"I strongly believe that this crisis, because of the faith and the amount of prayers of the elderly, isolated in their houses— I think that this will have an impact on the younger generation,” Enzler said.
“I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of young adults, because of this, will rediscover their faith."