Lent and Easter in the Italian turmoil of COVID-19

I thought it would be easier to describe the effect the Covid-19 pandemic is having on the Italian Civil Aviation Industry. Unfortunately, even among airport employees, we are beginning to count those who have died and those who have fallen ill due to this virus, and this deeply touches the souls of us all.

Looking back, we can now recognize how our pastoral ministry at the airport provided us with insight on the situation, allowing us to predict what would happen in reality. During some recent media interviews, I liked to compare the airport to a beehive, a symbol of industriousness and vitality. When the beekeeper sees that the hive is emptying and the bees are no longer returning, he immediately understands that something serious is happening, or is about to happen.

For instance, when on March 5, as the National Coordination of Catholic Civil Aviation Chaplains, we decided to write and publish a statement of support to our people. These were days in which we were seeing the number of passengers in our airports dramatically and rapidly decrease, and we imagined something would happen soon. Unfortunately, it did.

Italy’s airports aren’t completely closed: they are all open in case of emergency, for medical flights or for so-called ‘ferry-flights’. However, the drastic drop in passenger numbers and the decision of many airlines to ground their entire fleet (the latest is European low cost carrier, EasyJet, that yesterday – Monday 30 March – stopped all flights) has brought passenger traffic to a complete stop. In response, the Italian Government has decided to leave one airport open per region to allow Italian citizens abroad to be repatriated (currently Neos, Alitalia and Blue Panorama companies are running this shuttle service).

At Milan-Linate and Malpensa, I have decided to keep the chapel open as a sign of hope, and because some people continue to work (security, air traffic control, police) and it is right, even more so today, to provide them a place where they can stay peacefully in prayer. I celebrate Mass in Linate Airport every Sunday, behind closed doors as per regulations, because I consider it a tangible way to remind everybody that God is still present even if they aren’t, and also because they know that I’m there, ready to welcome them again when it will all be over.

None of us would have ever imagined to live Lent this way. For Catholic Christians, Lent is a time of forty days which, starting from the experience that Jesus had in the desert, allows the faithful to reconcile with God by praying, doing penance and fasting and offering the fruit of their sacrifices for works of Charity to prepare to celebrate the Easter of Resurrection. This year is completely different from the past: we are closed in at home, we priests cannot pray / celebrate with our people (but we are imaginative: we are using social networks and what modern technology offers us), and people are isolated… A real and authentic Lent.

What accompanies and supports us in our daily struggle is knowing that after Good Friday, there was the Saturday and that the Lord was dead but then rose. This period is like a flight by plane: we can take off leaving our city under clouds and rain but we know that, as the plane reaches altitude and exceeds the cloud layer, we will find blue skies and bright sun. At Easter, we Christians know that death does not have the last word on life. And for us, Easter is to know that after the most terrible of storms, the sky will open, the sun will return, and together we will be able to rejoice, perhaps enjoying the sight of a magnificent rainbow together.

This is going to take some time. The predictions for the recovery of the air sector say it will take 12 to 18 months from the end of the pandemic for our airports to return to the hives that were full of life. We await that moment just as we are waiting for Easter; with the certainty that God is accompanying us, supporting us and that he never abandons us. Even when a simple priest like me ends the day having run out of words, and is only able to say: “Lord, please, that’s enough!”, this is precisely the moment that I feel God walking next to me.

Happy Easter and God bless everyone. Fr. Fabrizio Martello
Civil Aviation Chaplain
Milan Linate and Malpensa Airports
National Coordinator for the Civil Aviation Pastoral Care
Italian Bishops Conference