Seminarian Matthew Duclos had to leave Rome and is finishing his quarantine in New York. (Photo illustration)
Seminarian Matthew Duclos had to leave Rome and is finishing his quarantine in New York. (Photo illustration)

As I write this, it’s Sunday, March 22, Day 11 of my two-week voluntary quarantine since arriving home from Rome, where I’m in my third year of theological studies. This reflection includes my fleeting thoughts of the moment regarding the unexpected situation in which I find myself. 

It was late February when we, the seminarians at the Pontifical North American College (the NAC) in Rome, were watching the numbers in China and northern Italy. The coronavirus was the sole topic of conversation in the halls, at meals, in our group chats, and it was even mentioned in homilies and prayer intentions at Mass. Questions abounded and speculation soared: Will the universities close? Will we get quarantined? Will we go home? 

Our last day of class was Wednesday, March 4, and the following Monday all of Italy became a “red zone.” Just like we’ve seen in New York with policies changing so quickly; each day there were new restrictions in Italy with more cancelled events and closed buildings. Because of the closure of the Gregorian University for an extended period of time and other escalating concerns, Bishop Scharfenberger gave Stephen Yusko, my classmate from Hudson, and me permission to come home. The last time seminarians made an unexpected exodus from the NAC was during World War II when everyone returned via ocean liner in June of 1940.  

We left the afternoon of Wednesday, March 11, which was the first day St. Peter’s Basilica and Square were closed to the public. I walked by the Square that morning and was stunned to see the stillness. On such a beautiful spring day when it would normally be filled with people from all over the world and the line to enter the Basilica would extend all the way around the colonnade, there was no one. It was a sad sight. 

Later that afternoon before boarding the plane, workers from the Italian health department took everyone’s temperature to ensure we weren’t unknowingly spreading the virus. Looking out my window as we were taxing, I didn’t see any airplanes arriving, none were departing, and there was an eerie, unexpected stillness across the tarmac. The city was quickly becoming void of what gives it life: its pilgrims and tourists. 

We arrived at JFK without any incident, collected our luggage, and picked up the rental car to make the trip north. Quarantine locations were tricky to arrange given the time constraints, but two separate residences miraculously fell into place (truly an answered prayer) within about 24 hours prior to us arriving. 

Solitary life in quarantine is different from any other way of living. I quickly realized that I had to maintain some sort of routine like what we have at the seminary. My quarantine location happened to be a vacant, furnished house and I was able to set up one room as an office and a separate room as a makeshift chapel. I arranged a crucifix, an icon of Christ the True Friend (worth a Google search), a candle, and a statue of Mary. It was crucial, above all, to continue my routine of prayer. I brought my laptop in there to watch Mass online during the week and on the weekend. 

Like all universities at this point, I also have online classes with video lectures, podcasts, forum posts and reading. Our weekly formation sessions, spiritual direction appointments, and advising meetings have all been adapted for video conferences. 

Ultimately, Lent is about a change of heart and a change of direction. Although there is anxiety from the unknowns and disappointment from things such as not being able to attend Mass, there is also opportunity. Our daily lives have changed dramatically through no choice of our own, yet we still maintain the freedom we’ve always had to turn to God. In my endless hours of quarantine, I was free to pray or not to pray. My choice was to pray and make God a crucial part my daily life. (And yes, some of my choices also included Netflix!) 

My quarantine ends on Wednesday, the 25th, after which I’ll move to St. Mary’s Church in Glens Falls where I’ll get an early start to my summer placement. Ideally, I will return to Rome for the end of the semester, but currently there is no date scheduled for reopening the universities. It’s another “unknown” at this point. 

About half of the seminary community (roughly 90 men from across the country) are still in Rome. Today they were informed that the formation program at the NAC will be “suspended until further notice” and they should book flights home by the end of the week as the situation in Italy continues to deteriorate. Please keep them in your prayers as they travel and begin their own two-week quarantines. 

This quarantine has been an unexpected opportunity to count my blessings. I’m grateful for my health, for my parents and parishioners from Corpus Christi who brought food to this house, for the ability to keep in touch with seminarians and friends across the country and across the ocean, for the prayers of so many, and most especially for God who is the constant in the midst of the unexpected. 

Matthew Duclos is a third-year seminarian student at Pontifical North American College in Rome.