Fr. Paddy Gilger, Locked Down in Milan, Reflects on Fear and Compassion

March 17, 2020 — Three weeks ago, before Italy's national lockdown, Fr. Paddy Gilger, SJ, traveled to Milan—the epicenter of Europe's coronavirus outbreak. He's still there. AMDG podcast host Mike Jordan Laskey spoke to Paddy about the mood in the city and how, as Christians, we can respond to fear with compassion and hope.

Below follows a transcript of the AMDG podcast, which was first uploaded on March 12.

If you're currently unfamiliar with AMDG: A Jesuit Podcast, you can read an introduction from our host here. Subscribe to AMDG on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, or wherever you listen. If you enjoy our show, please help us grow by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts!


Paddy, you traveled to Milan for your Ph.D. research about three weeks ago. Soon after your arrival, Italy’s prime minister announced a national lockdown, which means no one, yourself included, can leave the country. What's it like in Milan now? 


The streets are mostly empty. Every now and then you hear a fire engine or a police car. There are people out riding their bikes and there are people in the park. But it's also very quiet and it's very slow. There are no lines anywhere because the museums are closed and churches are closed. It's a very strange feeling. An older Italian Jesuit—he's probably 80 years old—said to me the other day in Italian, “If you live long enough, you'll see everything.” I never thought I would see anything like this in Italy. And now I have. 


Italy’s quarantine asks people to shelter in place in order to protect the most fragile among us, the most vulnerable among us. This struck me as like a pretty Catholic vision of what the common good is. Maybe we suspend some of our own freedoms in order to help everyone, especially those who are already most vulnerable. 


Yeah, that's right. It's the really difficult but really necessary inversion of our perspective to understand freedom as taking responsibility for those who would not have the capacity to keep themselves safe. I think giving up some freedoms for the common good is a responsible thing to do. I know it's not easy. And for me it's been a real sadness. I really wanted to go to the Milan Duomo for Mass. But, people are more important. 


As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about living the spiritual life, asking big questions, what do you do in moments of fear?


If I'm afraid, one of the things that I will do is try to take control, especially when I disagree with others. Sometimes that means presenting a more persuasive or hard-hitting argument. But, what I need, instead of exercising control, is release. I need to let go and try to encounter the other person rather than the fear it may kick up in me. 

But, that's a very different thing than encountering somebody else in their own place of fear. When someone else is afraid, that's very holy ground. We need to walk very gently towards this place of fear, towards the heart of the other person. The goal of that journey is not to solve the other person's fear as if it were a problem, but to be present for them. And that's a very difficult thing. Sometimes that means hardly saying anything, but just really being there.


There’s something about coronavirus that feels so outside of control. I think about people I know who might be especially vulnerable. Seeing the projections of the infection rate, that is pure terror for me.

This is one of the first times I can remember in my relatively sheltered, privileged life where I have not felt in control. But, I can do things to protect myself or my family that a lot of people just don't have the privilege to do. I can work from home. I have plenty of sick time, family leave and a really understanding boss. Not all people have access to those privileges. 


In fact, almost no one does. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have those supports. For me, it’s a question of friendship with those who do not have the privileges that we have. If the poor or the underprivileged are just ideas to us, if we don't really know them, then we can think, "I want to be helpful” or “I'm so privileged," and not do anything. 

But that’s just narcissism, it's an anxiety of narcissism. But, if I see these vulnerable people as my friends, who don’t have the same privileges that I have, then it won't be like some enormous source of anxiety. It will be, "Oh yeah, this is my buddy and I need to help figure out how they are going to get care." And I can do that even if it's a hassle. 


These big questions and worries are against the backdrop, at least for Christians, of Lent. Does Lent help you approach this situation spiritually? 


Yes, spiritually I am reminded that the goal of my life needs to be made present, made manifest now. The most important things in my life need to be chosen now. The most important things in our lives are the people that we love, the things that we have fallen in love with, that have given ourselves to us. That's what we have to prioritize in this health crisis. 


Do you have any prayers or reflections you want to share? 


I just want to ask us all to be attentive to those who are truly suffering. Hospitals were brought into existence because people were willing to go towards suffering rather than away from it. People asked, "Why would you ever do this? Why would St. Francis of Assisi kiss the leper as opposed to running away from the leper?" That is who we are supposed to be as Christians. 

Maybe that way of looking at the world cannot be a public policy answer for how we deal with a global health crisis. We need to learn from experts about how we can minimize the risks, but we ought to be the ones who are going towards those who are suffering, in love, to care for them. 

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