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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - An 88-year-old priest is being sanctioned for celebrating Sunday Mass as local authorities with the tacit consent of the church's hierarchy are using heavy-handed tactics to crack down on priests defying the ban on public Masses in coronavirus-hit parts of Northern Italy.
Father Antonio Lunghi was reported to the public prosecutor for offering Mass in the parish church of Castello d'Agogna, a village of just over a thousand inhabitants in the province of Pavia.
Sources say that the ringing of the church bells gave away the "clandestine Mass" and a number of locals reportedly complained to Mayor William Grivel.
Mayor Grivel says he was forced to forward the complaint to the Carabinieri (military police) of Mortara station. The Carabinieri sent the complaint to the public prosecutor.
Even though only eight Catholics were present at the 11 a.m. Holy Eucharist, the controversy erupted because both regional ordinances and diocesan regulations have banned the public celebration of the sacraments.
However, a source from the region told Church Militant that the "law" that was broken is a DPCM (Decree of the President of the Council of Ministers) issued on March 1.
The DPCM "is an administrative act that does not have the force of law and which, like ministerial decrees, has the character of a secondary regulatory source and is used to implement rules or pass regulations," the source explained.
The March 1 DPCM orders the:
suspension, until March 8, 2020, of all organized events, of a non-ordinary nature, as well as events in public or private places, including those of a cultural, recreational, sporting and religious nature, including if held in closed places but open to the public, such as, for example, major events, cinemas, theaters, discos [and] religious ceremonies.
"The Conferenza Episcopale Italiana (Conference of Italian Bishops), decided to apply it by totally forbidding public Mass," the source lamented.
"Someone followed Christ's orders not to abandon the flock to the wolves," Catholic campaigner Dr. Silvana De Mari told Church Militant, commending the courage of Fr. Lunghi.
"As long as one pastor challenges authority to celebrate Mass, a Mass at the expense of zero contagion, it means that the forces of the underworld did not prevail," she added, pointing out that "cinemas, bars and buses are open and functioning," despite the so-called prohibition.
"Few believers in a very large church pose a zero risk of contagion," the medical doctor stated, hence "priests should have asked the bishops to have the Masses multiplied: the risk is reduced to zero by multiplying the Masses, one every hour, and by imposing a limited number: only 20 believers at Mass, the others in the following Mass," Dr. Mari suggested.
Speaking to Church Militant, 93-year-old Holy Cross missionary Br. Harold Naudet expressed his bewilderment at the response of the Italian hierarchy in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
Brother Naudet shared the experience of the Holy Cross Brothers' and Sisters' mission to New Orleans from 1849 onwards:
The missionaries, along with the locals, suffered from malaria, epidemics of yellow fever, cholera and other diseases. The founder and first superior general, Fr. Basil Moreau, bore every loss as a God-given cross. Many Holy Cross priests, brothers and sisters as well as children from orphanages started by the order were struck down.
The general council met with the superior general and favored pulling the Holy Cross mission out of New Orleans. "But at the end of the meeting, Fr. Moreau put his head down in his hands for a few minutes, then looked up and said that since God demanded so much from Holy Cross in Louisiana, this must surely be a sign that God planned great things for our future there," Naudet narrated.
The general council adopted his view and voted to stay. Fr. Moreau expressed his view of the cross that "because it was a place of great suffering, it will be a place of great blessings," Naudet stressed. The Holy Cross mission in New Orleans resulted in a huge success for the evangelization of the Catholic faith.
Meanwhile, Fr. Lunghi has defended himself by stating that he had no knowledge of the ordinance prohibiting religious services. Because he does not use the internet, he did not open the e-mail sent by the diocese outlining the measures to be observed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The mayor is also backtracking on the complaint to the prosecutor. "Relations with our parish priest are excellent and will remain so. I was forced to report what had happened to the police because, in turn, I received complaints from some citizens. If I had not done so I would have risked a complaint in turn for omitting official documents," Grivel told the media.
"I also phoned the priest. I have known him very well for a long time, and he justified himself by saying that no one had warned him. In practice, the priest acted in good faith," the mayor said.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Italian bishops (CEI) endorsed a new DCPM which imposes restrictions on public assembly until April 3 and allows meetings only with people meeting "safely at a distance of at least one meter."
"In non-risk areas, by ensuring compliance with these indications in all pastoral and formative activities, the CEI reaffirms the possibility of celebrating Holy Mass, as well as promoting the prayer appointments that characterize the time of Lent," the statement noted.
A source pointed out to Church Militant the deliberate ambiguity of the wording, when asked if the bishops would permit Masses provided individuals in the congregation maintained a distance of one meter from each other.
"We must learn to return to the catacombs. In Nigeria, Christians die burned alive in their churches due to the indifference of Western Christians. Now Western Christians must also fight to be able to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. The gates of Hell will not prevail," Dr. Mari emphasized.