The Blessed Sacrament and a statue of the Virgin Mary flew around the perimeter of the Diocese of Camden on Wednesday afternoon — a two-hour round trip in a Cessna 182. 

Father Anthony Manuppella, pastor of St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish in Northfield, prayed from the plane for God's blessing and protection as the new coronavirus spread across New Jersey and the world.

In an interview before takeoff, Manuppella drew parallels to popes who processed through the streets of Italian cities when the plague marched across Europe, killing millions.

Popes said the Litany of Saints and accompanying prayers meant to ward off the plague, famine and other disasters, Manuppella said. He did the same Wednesday from the air.

"I'm going to pray with Jesus and Mary for all the people in our diocese, that they're protected against this virus ... and for healing," Manuppella said. "And we're praying for deliverance from this virus, just as they did in the Middle Ages and Renaissance time, when the plague from time to time would rear its ugly head."

In the parking lot of the Northfield church, parishioners praying decades of the Rosary — and keeping 6 feet of distance between each other — saw Manuppella off as he was picked up from the parish rectory early Wednesday afternoon. A fellow priest, Father John Seo, joined him on the trip.

They met the co-pilot, John DeCastra, a parishioner whose wife saw a video of the Italian Air Force running a similar mission. He got in touch with another Catholic pilot, and they set up the flight from Atlantic City International Airport. A mini bottle of holy water was placed up front, brought by the pilot.

"(This is) absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," DeCastra said. "You get to fly all the time, but to have the Blessed Sacrament in the back of it, doing an important mission such as this — it's a thing that rarely comes around."

Manuppella, draped in purple vestments, held the monstrance aloft and chanted in Latin as he made his way across the tarmac. He squeezed into the back seats with Seo, as the pilot placed headsets on them. 

DeCastra was in a reserved mood moments before the flight. He's been praying as COVID-19 continues to infect people across the state, dominating news and shutting down businesses.

"It reminds us that God is in control and, at some point, there's nothing we can do," he said.

While they were in the air, Gov. Phil Murphy announced 162 new positive cases of the illness in New Jersey, bringing the state total to 427.

Manuppella felt the journey would put his parishioners at ease. He wants to do his part, as doctors and officials work to contain the spread and minimize its impact. Parishioners in the parking lot, maybe feeling the uncertainty of the moment, asked the driver whether the pilot who would be taking their pastor up was top-notch. He was indeed, the driver assured them.

Extraordinary times call for divine measures, as Manuppella sees it. As long as everyone does what they are advised, the rest is in God's hands.

"This virus is beyond our control, as the president called it: an invisible illness, an invisible threat," Manuppella said. "So we're really like in a time of war, except that our enemy is more or less invisible. ... The weapons of prayer are, of course, extremely important at this time because it's so far above us, this virus. It's incomprehensible in many ways."

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