Br. Juan Acuna, C.PP.S., is taking you to Mass with him.
Br. Juan is a member of the Cincinnati Province who since last fall has been living in Rome and serving as the secretary general of the Congregation. He is now living through the coronavirus lockdown with the rest of Italy. Since March 10, he and Emanuele Lupi, C.PP.S., the moderator general, have been confined to the generalate in Rome except for brief trips made for very specific reasons.
“The whole country is a red zone,” he said. “We cannot travel. We can go to work or to the supermarket, or for medical reasons, but you have to fill out a form, a self-declaration as to why you are out, in case the police stop you. You can’t visit anyone. When you’re outside, you have to keep your distance.”
Keeping your distance is the opposite of the way a religious brother goes about his life. Br. Juan can still be of service to the Congregation, doing much of his work online. But he can’t serve others in the direct way that he is used to, and he misses it dreadfully. “The hardest thing for me is not being able to go out and participate in the Mass with the English speaking faith community at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita downtown Rome where he normally worships.
With Fr. Emanuele in the house, they can still celebrate the Eucharist together, along with the three Missionary Sisters of the Holy Family, who work in the house. “That’s our community,” he said. But in his mind and heart, it is much larger. “I’m privileged that I can still go to Mass here in the generalate. I know that fasting from the Eucharist is very hard for most of the people here. So when I go to Mass, I try to connect spiritually with everyone else who cannot, who can’t receive the body and blood of Christ. I am trying to be in solidarity with everybody.”
In his time off, he exercises, plays the guitar, and talks to his family in Chile and his friends around the world via Whatsapp and FaceTime. Br. Juan, a native of Santiago, was interviewed by CNN-Chile earlier in the week. “I wore my cup-and-cross pendant; you know, for branding,” he said.
The generalate is a large house so he and Fr. Emanuele have their own space, but they pray together every day, share meals together, and of course work together for the Congregation. “Emanuele is my only friend now,” Br. Juan joked. “The environment of the house is good. And the sisters are in the same situation, so we talk about it, we joke about it.”
The Italian people, whom Br. Juan says are warm and affectionate – “It’s hard for them not to be able to hug”—have found ways to be together. This Friday at 11 a.m., every radio station is going to play the national anthem. And each night at 6 p.m., people sit in their windows and play music and sing along with their neighbors.
Br. Juan can hear the music from the generalate. Its spacious grounds are a good place for a midday walk, especially these days—but they also put it too far away from a neighboring apartment building for the Missionaries to interact with their neighbors. “One day, a neighbor was celebrating his birthday and the whole building sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said. They could hear the music, but couldn’t really join in the greetings, isolated within the isolation.
“The whole situation is very strange. Rome is like a ghost town. Two weeks is a long time—and now they’re saying it could be three weeks, but we don’t know. We live day by day. Nobody could have imagined this—I couldn’t have imagined it a month ago,” he said.
And yet God is there, as always. “Since we’re in Lent, I’m taking all this as part of my Lenten fasting experience,” he said. He would tell others in the same situation to “keep connected. Pray. Be safe. That’s my main motivation in staying home. I’m helping not to spread the virus in the city. I’m doing this for other people. It’s not that it’s for me—everybody is doing this to protect everybody. That’s the important thing people have to realize: this is not for you. You are doing this for the whole city, for the whole community.”