JOEL BLAIZE: You’re listening to Echoes from the Bell Tower, stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in southern Indiana. I’m Br. Joel Blaize. We have several monks who live away from Saint Meinrad. They serve as teachers, chaplains, and in parishes. Some are students. When COVID-19 began to spread across the world at the beginning of the year, we were curious what it was like for our brothers who are living away from the monastery.
Fr. Lorenzo has been studying liturgy and church architecture in Rome for two years, and that’s where he was when the coronavirus began to spread. Italy was hit especially hard in March and also in April and actually had the highest death toll at one point. Fr. Lorenzo flew home to Saint Meinrad on June 1 for the summer and was ordained a priest at the end of August. Br. Kolbe took some time back in June to interview him about his experience in Rome.
KOLBE WOLNIAKOWSKI: So, prior to the pandemic though, what was your average day like?
LORENZO PENALOSA: Over there in Rome, since I live in a monastic community also, I think the schedule is similar to what we have here. Specifics are a little different, but we still go to church four or five times a day to pray. We still have meals together, and as a deacon, it was about the same. It didn't really change. There are four deacons there at Sant Anselmo, and I'm one of them. So, every three weeks or so, three or four weeks, I get to serve as a deacon.
KOLBE: Did they have Mass in the morning? When did you go to classes and stuff?
LORENZO: Yeah. So, the first thing in the morning there at Sant Anselmo is actually Mass and Lauds together at 6:20. After that is breakfast, and then classes start at 8:30.
KOLBE: And so ... I'm going to show my ignorance here. So when you took classes, did all the classes happen right there, or did you ... What’s the distance from the actual school if they aren't right there?
LORENZO: Yeah. So, the arrangement is very similar to what we have here at Saint Meinrad. So, you have the community right here, and then you have the school, the Ateneo. But in some ways that you are more interlinked there. Actually, to be honest, some of my classrooms are literally feet away from my cell over there.
KOLBE: So, when did Italy start getting hit with COVID? I don't actually remember. I remember the news. Was it January?
LORENZO: Yeah. So as early as late January, there was already a couple of cases there in Rome and ... Yes, in Rome, but it got really bad near the end of February, early March. On March 5th, the government actually suspended classes on all levels, schools. And then starting March 10th, the whole country was under lockdown.
KOLBE: So, how did COVID affect your time at Sant Anselmo? What were some big changes that you started witnessing?
LORENZO: I came to Sant Anselmo to study, first of all. And I think the biggest change that I felt personally was starting March 5th, basically physical classes were suspended.
LORENZO: And since then we’ve been having online classes. Even the exams are online. Now, inside the community, we’ve had to do a lot of precautions. For example, in church, at one point we were seated at least three seats apart from each other. We had to occupy even the guest section. Same in the dining room and the refectory. We were seated farther apart during meals, and we were asked not to leave our campus. Not even to go to the store.
KOLBE: So, leaving campus here is like ... there’s really nowhere to go. But obviously Sant Anselmo is in the middle of Rome. So, do you go out ... Prior to COVID, would you leave the monastery a lot more? Or how was that like?
LORENZO: Yeah. So, Sant Anselmo is right there in the city. It’s up on a hill, but once you get down the hill, there are a lot of shops, restaurants and stuff. I usually try to go out two or three times just for a walk. And that was something that was a little difficult when this pandemic started, because we don’t have a gym there at Sant Anselmo, and so my main exercise was walking outside. Going to some of the gardens or churches close by. And once we were under lockdown, we couldn’t do that anymore. In fact, actually in order to be out and about in public you had to bring a certificate with you certifying that you either are going to work, to buy supplies, or to the hospital. Those were the only three accepted excuses to be out. And there was police and soldiers out and about.
KOLBE: Could you see a lot of stuff from your window? The city streets and stuff like that?
LORENZO: Yeah. So actually, I have a very nice view from my cell over there at Sant Anselmo. And one thing that’s very interesting over there is, especially earlier on, at certain times of the day, like at noon or at six o’clock in the evening, people would just play music from their balconies, from their windows. And they would play songs and then they would applaud, they would clap and applaud healthcare workers and people who are trying to keep us safe. And people would actually have flags and banners saying, “Tutto andrá bene” – Everything will be fine.
KOLBE: What was it like ... how did you make the decision to come home? What did that look like?
LORENZO: That was a really tough decision because earlier on there was a lot of uncertainty, especially earlier in March. We didn’t know how big this was going to be. And there was a lot of opportunity till about mid-March. There was a lot of opportunities to fly back home, but I was a little worried also. I have some health problems and so I would be at a higher risk of catching it. And then that window of opportunity closed I would say near the end of March.
After that there wasn’t a lot of flights anymore and plane tickets were just very expensive. And basically, for most of April and early March, I was just thinking, gosh, I really, really just want to be back at Saint Meinrad. And finally, early May I contacted Father Abbot and explained my situation. We were fairly safe there at Sant Anselmo, and I’m very blessed. We have a great community, lots of good brothers there, but it’s just different being back home.
Actually, even when Father Abbot said, “yes” and I already got my ticket going home, a lot of my friends over there actually said, “No, it’s not safe to travel. You might catch it while traveling. You’re, you’re better off just staying there.” And the answer that kept coming back to my mind that I would tell them is, “I made my vows as a monk of Saint Meinrad. I need to be there at this moment.” I didn’t make my vows to be there at Sant Anselmo. I wanted to be home.
KOLBE: And so Father Abbot and you came up with a plan to get you home. And what coming home would look like for the first couple weeks. Can you explain that a little bit to us?
LORENZO: So, for the most part, Father Abbot Kurt gave me that judgment call about when to come home. And the first available flight that I could find was actually on June 1st. And it worked out very well because it was going to be during my final exams time. And I knew that I had to do a two-week quarantine. And so, I timed it so that during that quarantine I could finish papers and do exams from here since everything’s online.
KOLBE: Interesting. Was it scary flying back home?
LORENZO: Yeah, the flight back home was just very, very surreal. I remember arriving at the airport there in Rome, and it was empty. There wasn’t a lot of passengers. Actually, not a lot of airport officials also. I had to have an extra layover for my flight, which added some travel time. But yeah, the flights that I was on weren’t full. Every other seat was blocked off, and also every other row. I would say food and services during flights were almost bare minimum. They really wanted to lessen the interactions between the passengers and the flight attendants. I just have to say this. I was so relieved when I finally arrived safely and Louisville, and then when I saw Brother Benjamin pulling up the car there and I was just, “I’m back home.”
KOLBE: Yeah. One question I have is also, how does it compare? The two weeks it seems like you actually planned it ingeniously in the fact that you got to work on your homework and stuff like that. So you weren’t probably pulling your hair out in your cell getting bored, but ... You just ended up getting out of quarantine. Let’s see. Today’s-
KOLBE: Yeah. So, today is Wednesday and you were officially back in the community on Tuesday, and the first time I saw you, it was strange. I was like, “Wait, who is that?” I was like, “Oh, Lorenzo.” But do you notice any differences how we handle this pandemic crisis versus what you witnessed in Rome?
LORENZO: Yeah. I think both communities here and at Sant Anselmo, I think both communities really tried to respond based on the situation of the place. Over here we’re more in a rural setting. And in some ways, you don’t need as much precautions. Over there, in some ways we probably overreacted, but it was, I think, really necessary because we are right there in the city and more people could come in and out.
KOLBE: Yeah. Well and I think it would be scary because Rome is a city. There are so many people around and your chances are just so high, and knowing what the hospital’s like, they were overwhelmed. And yeah. So now let’s speak a little bit about home. So since we got out of Saint Meinrad. So, did you ever watch any of our liturgies online when we were –
LORENZO: Yes, actually I did, and I didn’t. Yes. I watched some Vespers and Mass, but it really made me homesick. And after a while I was like, “Oh no, I’m not going to watch that anymore. Because it was at that time that I was like, “Oh, I would really want to be home,” but I couldn’t find any flights, any plane rides going home.
And also, just ... This is a beautiful opportunity for us to really rethink about our outreach online. I love our livestream of liturgies, and Brother Simon is leading Lectio Divina on Twitter, and then of course this Echoes and we’re sharing our rosary with others. And so in some ways there’s an even greater audience that we’re reaching out to because of this. So that’s one great blessing.
Having said that, livestreams are great, and I’m glad that we’re sharing our prayer with others who otherwise couldn’t be here. But it’s like the difference of video chatting with a friend and actually seeing someone in person. The liturgy is our most intimate encounter with God. And well, virtual isn’t enough in the end. I hope our livestream here can serve as a spiritual snack until we can join together in the banquet.
KOLBE: Thank you for listening to this interview with Fr. Lorenzo. This is our last episode of this podcast season and we are beginning to plan episodes for our next season. If there are any topics you would like us to explore, email us at email@example.com.
JOEL: This episode was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of Br. Joel Blaize, Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter and Christian Mocek. The intro and outro music for this podcast was written and produced by Br. Joel.
KOLBE: Thanks to Fr. Lorenzo for talking to us about your COVID experience. If you are enjoying “Echoes from the Bell Tower,” tell your friends and subscribe to it on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite listening platform.
JOEL: You can always listen to past episodes on our website at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes. Thanks for listening this season!