VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a historic first, Rome has banned the presence of the faithful at all Masses until April 3, displaying an excessive willingness to submit to the emergency coronavirus decree of the Italian government issued Saturday night.
Priests may continue to celebrate the Eucharist behind locked doors but congregations will be prohibited from entering churches while Mass is being celebrated and Catholics will have to forgo receiving the sacraments in church communities.
"The Church that lives in Italy and through the Dioceses and parishes, draws close to every man, shares the common concern in the face of the health emergency that is affecting the country," the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI) said in a statement Sunday, citing the Decree of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, which suspends "civil and religious ceremonies, including funeral ceremonies" throughout the country until April 3.
The bishops' statement added: "It is a highly restrictive passage, the reception of which encounters sufferings and difficulties for pastors, priests and faithful. The acceptance of the Decree is mediated solely by the desire to do its part, also in this situation, to contribute to the protection of public health."
Faithful Catholics blasted the "cowardice" of the bishops and compared their "readiness to roll over" with the protests from a number of presidents of Italian provinces who have questioned the interpretation and the disproportionate nature of the decree.
"I do not want to be an alarmist, and I am not saying that it will be the last Mass ever but it could happen. In this Lent, we could be fasting from receiving Communion," Fr. Ottavio De Bertolis told his congregation during his homily in the Church of the Gesù in Rome.
"The church could be closed tomorrow ... we will take the Scripture and listen to what the Spirit says and this is a blessing. We are in the moment of trial, in the silence of all the voice of God speaks," the distinguished preacher prophetically proclaimed.
Vicariate of Rome spokesman Fr. Don Walter Insero told ANSA news: "The new government decree requires this. We are taking steps to inform parish priests."
A source told Church Militant that the decree does not explicitly mention the Mass but simply "religious events including funerals" and allows restaurants and bars to remain open with the "obligation on the operator to enforce the distance of interpersonal security of at least one meter, with penalty of suspension of activity in case of violation."
"The bishops had two choices," the source observed. "One: defy the authorities and refuse to abolish the Mass; respond to the emergency with more precautions, like allowing people in during celebrations but with the distance of one meter. Two: conform and interpret the decree in the most restrictive possible way, this, of course, is what they did."
"At the end of the day, everything in Italy is about interpretation," the source explained, "and the bishops could have plowed their own interpretative furrow through the decree if they had the courage to do so."
Speaking to Church Militant, Emanuele Di Martino, pastor of the House of Prayer in Rome agreed that the decree was open to interpretation and particularly confusing as to whether the restrictions were to be applied to the whole of Italy or only the "red zones" — the most seriously affected parts of Northern Italy.
The president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, slammed the decree on Facebook: "In the face of circumscribed clusters, which do not affect the general population in a widespread manner, one does not understand the rationale of a measure that appears scientifically disproportionate to the epidemiological trend."
"Some parts of the provision may be of dubious interpretation and difficult to apply tomorrow," Stefano Bonaccini, president of the Emilia Romagna region wrote on Facebook.
"Although the measures go in the right direction, I cannot fail to point out that the text is, to say the least, messed up and needs clarification from the government itself to allow citizens to understand what can be done or not," president of the Lombardy region Attilio Fontana told newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Though many churches in Rome imposed the one-meter seating restrictions at Mass Sunday morning even before the decree was enforced and refused to administer Holy Communion on the tongue, the Latin Mass Parish of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini did not submit to the restrictions.
Earlier in the week, French bishop Pascal Roland of the diocese of Pays de l'Ain refused to cave in to "the epidemic of fear" caused by the coronavirus crisis.
"For my part, I refuse to give in to collective panic and to subject myself to the precautionary principle which seems to move civil institutions. I therefore do not intend to issue specific instructions for my diocese," he announced.
Bishop Roland said he refused "to prescribe the closing of churches, the suppression of masses, the abandonment of the gesture of peace during the Eucharist, the imposition of such or such mode of Communion deemed more hygienic, because a church is not a place of risk, but a place of salvation."
"Will Christians stop coming together to pray? Apart from the elementary precautions that everyone takes spontaneously so as not to contaminate others when they are sick, it is not advisable to add more," he added.
Calling the decision to close churches "madness" and "an exaggerated psychosis," well-known Catholic epidemiologist Paolo Gulisano pointed out that the disease was transmitted "only by saliva droplets with personal closeness, touching infected hands or surfaces that are brought to the mouth, or drinking in infected cups or glasses."
"It is senseless to close churches and to suspend masses; what was decided by some local bishops and recommended by the CEI is unreasonable. The contagion is greater in the subways, in the shopping centers and in the betting shops which however make money for the state," he commented.
The Vatican announced that the Pope would continue to celebrate daily Mass in his Santa Marta residence but because of COVID-19 the faithful would not be invited to the residence to participate. Instead, the Masses will be livestreamed by Vatican Media "so that those who wish to do so may follow the celebrations in union of prayer with the Bishop of Rome."
The Vatican Museums, the Scavi Office, Museum of the Pontifical Villas and the Museum Centers at the Pontifical Basilicas are also closed until April 3.