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Italy’s Catholic bishops wonder why masses were omitted from government’s reopening plan

Italy’s Roman Catholic Church has reprimanded the government for not allowing the faithful to return to masses at the start of a gradual staged end to Europe’s longest coronavirus lockdown.

Masses have been banned since early March when Italy closed most commercial activities apart from essentials.

A timetable given on Sunday by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said funerals could resume from May 4 but must be limited to 15 people and held outdoors if possible.

The timetable for May 4 to June 1 made no mention of masses.

Italy’s bishops, in a strongly worded statement issued late on Sunday night, said they could “not accept seeing the exercise of freedom of religion being compromised” and accused the government of “arbitrarily” excluding mass from the timetable.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, shown in the lower house of parliament on April 21, said the reopening rollout for May could change if the country sees another spike in COVID-19 infections. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

The statement implied that the bishops felt betrayed, saying they had suggested to the government measures to resume masses while respecting new safety norms.

The timetable also caused divisions within Conte’s cabinet.

“So, we can safely visit a museum but we can’t celebrate a religious service? This decision is incomprehensible. It must be changed,” tweeted Elena Bonetti, minister for equal opportunities and family.

Italian museums and libraries can reopen from May 18.

Many churches open, but not for services

Italy’s death toll remains the heaviest in Europe, with more than 26,000 dead and almost 200,000 confirmed cases. But the number of new cases has been slowing and the number of patients in intensive care has been falling steadily.

The bishops said the government had a duty “to distinguish between its responsibility to furnish precise health regulations and that of the church, which is called to organize Christian community life in respect of (health) norms but in full autonomy.”

In response, the government acknowledged the bishops’ complaint and said it would study how to let believers participate safely in liturgical functions “as soon as possible.”

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Most of Italy’s churches have remained open during the crisis, but only for individual prayer.

“If there are ways to work safely, shop safely and do sport safely, there is a way to celebrate mass safely,” said Paolo Ciani of the small, centrist DEMOS party.

Restaurants, cinemas also not part of May guidelines

From May 4, the manufacturing, construction and wholesale sectors will be allowed to reopen provided that companies can comply with strict health safety protocols. 

People will be able to visit relatives, but only in small numbers. Masks are expected to be worn during such visits and physical distancing rules still apply.

A vendor wearing a protective face mask delivers a plastic bag to a customer Monday at an open-air food market in Cisternino, northwestern Italy. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

Parks will reopen, unless mayors decide otherwise. People can exercise freely, but organized sport, both professional and amateur, will remain banned for another two weeks.

Walk-in food takeaway shops can reopen.

People will not be able to leave their regions of residence, “except for proven working needs of absolute urgency or for health reasons.”

The government has said it hopes that shops, museums and libraries can reopen from May 18. Strict physical distancing rules will apply. Museum tickets will have to be bought online.

Team training for sports, including soccer, are scheduled to resume on the same date. No decision has yet been taken on when or if championships can resume.

Conte said the plan was for bars and restaurants, hairdressers and beauty clinics to reopen from June 1. Clients will have to be one metre apart at the counter, while tables will have to be two metres apart. Staff must wear masks and gloves.

Pope Francis leads mass and the Regina Coeli prayer in Rome’s Santo Spirito in Sassia church without public participation on April 19. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

There was no indication in Conte’s message as to when cinemas, theatres, pubs, discos, dance schools and betting shops might reopen.

As well, the government said the plans are subject to change should there be a sharp rise in infections.

In mid-March, the cardinal of Rome modified his order to close the capital’s churches, even for individual prayer, after Pope Francis cautioned against “drastic measures” and Catholics took to social media to complain.

The Vatican, which for the most part has been mirroring Italy’s containment measures, has not yet said when St. Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican museums will reopen.

Tension over religious gatherings has been a feature of the pandemic around the world. Clusters of cases have been traced to masses or crowded services in France, Israel, South Korea and the U.S., while some American states with stay-at-home orders have considered religious gatherings to be essential services that can continue, provided physical distancing guidelines are followed.

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