​Chaplains of the Lazzaretto

Lazzaretto, Milan

Paul Bodenham, Programme Leader for Social Action, Diocese of Nottingham

In November last year I took part in the ‘Grassroots Participation Learning Pathway’ in Milan, part of Caritas Europa’s Autumn Academy. My job is to develop Caritas, the church’s charitable arm, in Nottingham Diocese, so I was there to learn. One evening we had some ‘downtime’ and we were taken on a tour of the neighbourhood.

This was no ordinary heritage tour. Our guides were two older gentlemen from the Gatti Spiazzati, the ‘stray cats’, a charity which helps vulnerable and homeless people in Milan become tour guides. It’s a beautiful idea: the guides recover their own dignity while finding pride in the city on whose streets they have lived.

Milan, the fashion capital of Italy, is not short of dignity, but has its share of tragedy. In Britain during March 2020 we watched helpless as the city and the region was wracked by Covid-19. Then only two weeks later our own death count in Britain was exceeding that of Italy.

Our hotel in Milan was in the neighbourhood called Lazaretto. Our guides told us it was named after the plague hospital which was built for the city around 1500. The lazzaretto itself took its name from Lazarus, the beggar in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16) who died from disease but found comfort in heaven.Lazarus’ wealthy neighbour, who had simply left him to suffer, found only eternal agony.

In centuries past, countless citizens of Milan died in successive outbreaks of the plague. They died with the comfort of courageous carers, many of whom died themselves – a scenario we know too well ourselves. In the lazzaretto they died with the dignity conferred by the Gospel, through word, sacrament and charity. Only fragments of it now remain – mainly the corner you can see at the foot of the photograph, above, which was taken in the 1880s.

In the lazzaretto in which COVID-19 has confined us now, Pope Francis has emerged as the global chaplain.Three of his statements stand out for me. Writing to the leaders of social movements on Easter Day, he encourages activists to persevere in their vocation as ‘social poets, who from the forgotten peripheries create worthy solutions for the most pressing problems of the excluded’ – surely a vocation each of us must own for ourselves. His Urbi et Orbi address on 27 March calls us to recognise the pandemic as a time for judgement – not God’s but ours. And in an interview with the journalist Austen Ivereigh, he confesses humanity’s abuse of nature (thought to have made the Coronavirus pandemic more likely) and longs for an economy that is ‘less liquid, more human’. He speaks for a deep and rising public mood of repentance – a recent survey found that only 9% of British people think life should return to ‘normal’ once the crisis is over.

In his interview with Ivereigh, Francis remembers a book that was dear to him in his childhood: I promessi sposi (‘The Betrothed’) by Alessandro Manzoni. It describes the work of the Archbishop, Charles Borromeo (later a saint), and uncanonised (but also saintly) friars, who tended the sick in the Lazzaretto of Milan in the outbreak of plague in 1630.It is to this book that Ivereigh traces Francis’ beloved image of the Church as a field hospital.

None of us, meeting at the scene last autumn, expected that hospitals and care homes in our own towns would soon become a lazzaretto. But I thank the stray cats of Milan and pray for them. They are helping me to learn how to be a chaplain too.