ROME — Looking on the “bright side” or seeking the “silver lining” of something like a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is not naivete, but an exercise of one’s God-given will, said a U.S. professor locked down in Rome with his wife and son.
Andreas Widmer, a former member of the Pontifical Swiss Guard now teaching in the business school at The Catholic University of America in Washington, arrived in Rome with his family in early January to teach at the university’s Rome campus. It was also to be an extended time of rediscovering the city where he served in the guards from 1986 to 1988 and where he met his wife 32 years ago.
Now the Widmer family, a security guard and an Italian woman who works for the Australian Catholic University program on the same site as the CUA Rome campus are locked down together or, as he put it, have formed a small community.
Widmer, in a WhatsApp interview from just a few blocks away, told Catholic News Service, “We take too little advantage of our will, of our freedom in the sense that we are raising our fists against something we don’t control. And then we don’t do squat about what we actually control — yet that would make all the difference.”
The Rome campus is housed in a former convent and still includes a chapel. Before the lockdown and before all the students were sent home in early March, a priest from the Pontifical North American College would come to celebrate Mass.
“But the Eucharist is in the tabernacle so we can do morning and evening prayers down there,” Widmer said March 17. “Everything we need we have. It’s an extended retreat.”
Although Italy is on lockdown, people are allowed to leave their homes to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy and walk their dogs. The police can and do stop people on the streets to ask why they are out; they can give tickets to those without a valid reason for being on the street, although usually they just encourage them to hurry home.
The Widmers home-school their son, Elias, 15, “so his schedule has been exactly the same as it was before,” his father said. The big difference is that he no longer has 35 university students to interact with and sit with at dinner. But his home-school program includes online, interactive courses and he uses WhatsApp and Skype for calls with friends and family.
“I asked him the other day, ‘On a scale from one to 10, how worried are you?’ And he says zero.”
Widmer, who teaches entrepreneurship with a focus on Christian principles, especially the proper use of human will and freedom, said dealing with a lockdown is the perfect time to exercise God-given capacities for contributing to the common good and focusing on personal growth.
“No matter what, you can react, and you can make it beautiful,” he said. As his students were preparing to leave, he said he urged them to make their last days in Rome beautiful and to go home and make their 14-day quarantine beautiful as well.
“You can purposely, consciously do this,” he said. He and his family now “have this rhythm of going to visit the Lord in the Eucharist downstairs, you know, to make it beautiful.”
The students were told to go home just a week before their spring break was to begin. Almost all of them had plans to travel in Europe, he said. There were tears for upset plans and lost opportunities.
But, he said, he tried to explain to them how “life is, in a sense, a constant rehearsal for dying — not in a morbid way — but in a sense of losing something or ending something.”
“One day God is going to demand your life from you,” he said he told the students, “and you’re going to say — just like you’re here in Rome saying — ‘But I haven’t gone to Greece yet!'”
Deciding when life will end “is not up to us,” he said, but the way each person reacts to the “little deaths” in life is.
And people still have the freedom to decide how they will use their time in lockdown, he said. “I’m expecting us to be here four more weeks. And, so, the question is, what could you do in four weeks that you would never do otherwise or would never have the time to do otherwise?”
“I’ve been working on my next book forever,” he said. “I usually write in the summer. And I’ve tried it three times, and I literally had to throw it away because it just was horrible.”
Although he is now teaching his classes online and grading papers from Rome, “I suddenly have four weeks with this thing going on. I’m like, ‘OK, Lord, I get it.’ I’m just going to sit down and write a bit every day.”