The Italian bishops struck a defiant tone with their response to Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, after he announced on Sunday evening that the faithful would have to wait for a return to regular Sunday and weekday Masses, even though many other social, economic, and commercial activities will begin again very soon.
“The Italian bishops cannot accept seeing freedom of worship compromised,” the bishops said in a statement yesterday evening, after Conte addressed the nation to announce that many other activities will recommence in short order.
Family gatherings can take place starting May 4, as well as outdoor exercise activities and take-away service at bars and restaurants. Export manufacturing and wholesale vendors’ activities are also to open again on the 4th. Construction on public works may recommence Monday, while other projects will begin again on May 4, as well.
Retail stores are set to reopen on May 18, while standing and sit-down service in bars and restaurants is slated to begin again on June 1, along with hairdressers and beauty salons. Funeral rites may be celebrated starting May 4, but with no more than fifteen persons in attendance. Conte gave no date, however, for the end of the ban on public Masses and all other public religious celebrations, which went into effect March 8.
The virus has claimed more than 26,600 lives in Italy.
The Italian bishops’ conference, CEI, have been keen to show themselves willing to cooperate with civil authority from the beginning, and were not happy with Conte’s announcement Sunday evening.
“It must be clear to everyone that the commitment to serving the poor, so significant in this emergency, is born of a faith that must be able to nourish itself at its source, in particular sacramental life,” the bishops wrote.
The bishops had been in conversation with the interior ministry for several weeks, ahead of Conte’s Sunday evening address. Throughout the negotiations, “[T]he Church accepted, with suffering and a sense of responsibility, the government limitations taken to face the health emergency,” the bishops’ statement said.
The CEI also said they emphasised explicitly and repeatedly several times that “the Church demands to be able to resume her pastoral activity,” when the restrictions are reduced.
“Now,” the bishops’ statement went on to say, “after these weeks of negotiation that saw the CEI present guidelines and protocols with which to face a transitional phase in full compliance with all health standards, the Prime Minister’s decree [of Sunday] evening arbitrarily excludes the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people.”
The CEI reminded the Prime Minister and the technical-scientific committee advising him of the need “to distinguish their responsibility – giving precise indications of a sanitary nature – and that of the Church”. The Church, the statement said, is “called to organize the life of the Christian community, in compliance with the measures prepared, but in the fullness of [the Church’s] proper autonomy”.
A communiqué from the Prime Minister’s office said: “The Prime Minister takes note of the CEI’s statement and confirms what was already anticipated in the press conference by PM Conte. A protocol will be studied in the coming days that will allow the faithful to participate in the liturgical celebrations as soon as possible in conditions of maximum safety.”
Italy’s churches have remained largely open to the public during the health crisis, but closed for Masses and other official acts of public worship.
The editor-in-chief of the Italian bishops’ Avvenire newspaper, Marco Tarquinio, said the failure to provide even a timeline for the reopening of Italy’s churches for public worship was “a grave error”.
Tarquinio said the caution and careful advice with which Prime Minister Conte announced the gradual reopening of Italy were “understandable and praiseworthy” when considered broadly.
“Nevertheless,” he went on to say in an editorial posted Sunday evening, “the line, which continues to deny believers – for weeks and perhaps for months – the chance to participate in religious functions other than funerals – [even] naturally according to strict safety rules – is disconcerting, worrisome, and hurtful.”
The president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia Città della Pieve, had written to the faithful of his archdiocese last week to say he believes it is time to relax the restrictions on public celebrations. “The time has come to resume the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist and church funerals,” he wrote on April 23, “naturally following those measures necessary to guarantee safety in the presence of more people in public places.”