Documenting How Pandemic Lockdown Changed Eternal City’s Religions
Film by BU alum shows influence of coronavirus on Rome’s religious practices
The Vatican and Rome have become vernacular synonyms, entwined as they are by history and geography. Yet the Eternal City has been home to many other religious groups besides Roman Catholicism for millennia. Scholar-filmmaker Jenn Lindsay has documented how religious Romans of various stripes have sought God this year, as COVID-19 stripped communal worship during some traditions’ most sacred observances.
Quarantined Faith: Rome, Religion and Coronavirus is Lindsay’s 33-minute survey of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan 2020—along with views of non-Abrahamic traditions like Buddhism—as they unfolded during lockdown in Italy, one of the nations slammed hardest by the pandemic.
“While the world is largely aware of the dominating presence of Roman Catholicism in Italy,” says Lindsay (GRS’18), “fewer are familiar with the fact that the Roman Jewish community is 2,200 years old, or have heard about the plight of the Muslims in Italy, roughly 70 percent of whom are migrants. A vast majority of Italian Muslims depend on the tourism, restaurant, panhandling, day labor, and short-term gig economies, which have been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Her film strums diverse emotional chords as well. Some worshippers discuss the discovery of seeking God with a bigger community, even if remotely. But a shot of Pope Francis celebrating Easter Mass in an empty basilica, while capturing the Vatican’s breathtaking architecture, makes him seem a tiny, lonely speck. Lindsay also asks those she interviews whether the online communities formed by remote worship will endure beyond the pandemic.
She moved to Rome six years ago to pursue research for her BU doctorate in religion and subsequently married a Roman Zen Buddhist. Having earned that PhD, Lindsay is now a sociology and communications lecturer at John Cabot University, an American liberal arts institution in Rome. She recently discussed with us her film, which she’s submitting to various festivals as well as to interfaith networks.
With Jenn Lindsay
Bostonia: Did your research for the movie leave you happy or sad overall?
Jenn Lindsay: Very few people have had the experience of being sequestered in their homes for months on end. Not only were we collectively locked down, we watched a grave crisis unfold, with widespread loss of life, livelihoods, and the looming danger of a highly communicable respiratory virus. In Italy, hundreds of people a day were dying in hospitals with no contact with their families; trucks filled with corpses lined the streets.
Jenn Lindsay: The quarantine wasn’t all bad. Many of us found ourselves with extra time for spiritual practice, exercise, creative projects, and family time. But every positive aspect of that period was balanced—if not overwhelmed—by the danger, grief, and absurdity that COVID-19 has brought to our lives. While the people in my film described deepening their spiritual disciplines and human connections during the quarantine, regarding the lockdown as a sort of spiritual retreat period, these joys all fell against the backdrop of the pandemic. Never before have we seen images of a pope celebrating the Catholic rites in such isolation, with such urgency—and certainly not with a motion graphic of a death count onscreen.
I hope the tensions inherent in the film can inspire viewers to appreciate the resourcefulness and vitality of the human mind, especially in the context of catastrophe.
Bostonia: How did you find and select your interviewees and gain access to their various religious celebrations?
Jenn Lindsay: When the quarantine started, there were “flash mobs” of music-making on Italian balconies, neighborhoods of glimmering flashlights, and nationwide moments of applause for healthcare workers. I immediately began filming everything I could see from my balcony and on walks with my dog because it was all so delightfully unusual and intense.
As it became obvious that the quarantine would last through Passover, Easter, and even Ramadan, the social scientist in me knew I had to capture the moment. It was all unfolding in Rome, the headquarters of a religion that almost 1.5 billion people belong to. So the location is also quite significant. Since I conducted my BU PhD fieldwork in Rome, I had cultivated an extensive network of contacts in the religious and interreligious worlds, as well as with nonprofit organizations.
Bostonia: Do you think the predictions of religious reform some of your interviewees make will follow the lifting of lockdowns? Or will we return to life as usual?
Jenn Lindsay: Italy’s collapse into quarantine necessitated the fast development of infrastructures and networks to connect people throughout the crisis. I think many of those are here to stay: Zoom worship, Zoom community events and sacred text study, social network channels that connect people within and beyond their own congregations.
I am still working entirely from home, and so is everyone I know. I’ve managed to keep up a lot of my daily quarantine habits, like yoga and meditation, and I am hearing the same from other people. I suspect it will be a long time, at least a year, until life will really go back to normal. At the same time, there was something incandescent about the fervor of the early quarantine—fear and death and lurking danger pushed people onto a plane of spiritual vigor that is hard to maintain as time goes on and the ambiance of daily life starts to normalize. People can’t stay on retreat forever, and they wouldn’t want to—otherwise it wouldn’t be a retreat.