A couple wearing face masks stroll outside St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Feb. 27, 2020. Clusters of coronavirus outbreaks in northern Italy have stoked fears throughout Italy and Europe. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Coronavirus outbreak in Italy challenges Lenten celebrations

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As parts of northern Italy are under curfew and quarantined amid growing coronavirus concerns, Catholic priests in the region look for new and creative ways to administer Mass in the days leading up to Lent.

Catholic dioceses from the Italian cities of Milan and Venice have asked their priests not to say Mass and congregate large crowds, as the country became home to the largest coronavirus outbreak in Europe with over 400 people infected and 11 dead.

The Italian bishops have complied with the Italian state by requiring some diocese not to perform the sign of peace and to avoid the use of the holy water font in order to prevent contagion.

Fears of the virus have led priests to consider alternative ways to say Mass, through streaming and personal visits, and to ensure faithful had the opportunity to receive ashes on Wednesday (Feb. 26), an essential element of the celebrations preceding the roughly 40 days of Lent before Easter.

Don Alessio Albertini, from the Diocese of Milan, found himself tasked with convincing the elderly crowd of his usual Sunday Mass that instead of shaking hands and kissing cheeks for the sign of peace they should offer each other a big smile.

“For Christians this is an opportunity for us, who have the chance to go to Mass freely and without fear of terrorists or prohibitions, to reflect on how this is not possible and why we need the Eucharist,” Albertini told Religion News Service in an interview Thursday.

“Now that I cannot go as I always have, then the Mass is no longer just a Sunday habit but something that is fundamental,” he added. “I think this is a strong reflection for Christians this Sunday who for the first time will not be able to live out the Eucharist the way they are used to.”

In the Ambrosian rite of Milan, ashes are administered on Sunday instead of on Ash Wednesday, and Archbishop Mario Delpini will be streaming the Mass online.

A woman prays in an empty Santa Maria presso San Satiro church on Ash Wednesday in Milan, northern Italy, on Feb. 26, 2020. Italy has been struggling to contain the rapidly spreading outbreak that has given the country more coronavirus cases outside Asia than anywhere else. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Albertini said he has been caught in the race to the supermarkets that has left aisles empty of food and supplies in Milan. He encouraged people not to give in to fear and hysteria and to remember the importance of being together.

“The biggest devastation of this event is to separate us and keep us away from one another,” he said. “In this moment we realize we depend on each other, and despite everything our world pushes to believe, that we must be isolated, that the individual comes before everything, that idolatry is what we must dedicate our life to. We realize that we depend entirely — in sickness and in healing — on somebody else.”

In Catholicism and many other Christian denominations, Lent is a period of penitence lasting roughly six weeks before the Easter celebration. It is a time when many faithful choose to fast or undertake little acts of devotion as a Lenten sacrifice.

Social media images of the Rev. Giacomo Martino saying Mass before empty pews and a small recording device have circulated widely on Italian social media and media outlets, a symbol of what religious life looks like in the time of coronavirus fears.

Martino, who started off the Ash Wednesday celebration by telling people “don’t be afraid,” told reporters he will be streaming Mass every day on Facebook and YouTube until the epidemic is over and faithful will once again be free to go to the pews. Closer to Rome, in the town of Viterbo, diocesan priests are asking their parishioners not to receive Communion directly on the tongue and not to hold hands during the Our Father.

No coronavirus cases have been reported in Rome, home to Vatican City, where people continue to go to Mass and attended the Ash Wednesday celebrations. Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the victims of the coronavirus and especially “our Chinese brothers and sisters,” praying for recovery and healing during his weekly Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square.

The Rev. Donato Lepera, a parish priest at San Pio V church near the Vatican, spent Ash Wednesday celebrating Mass for groups of elderly and children. He told RNS on Wednesday that while parishioners “feel some anxiety” due to the incoming reports on the coronavirus, he is trying to “offer optimism and hope, because after all Lent is a time of hope.”

He said that while the number of people coming to Mass has not diminished much, the number of questions regarding parish activities and practices has grown.

“One can say that Lent is the quarantine of the soul,” he said. “It’s a chance to retire and enter into our hearts. This is important because it allows us to guide our anxieties and fears of not making it alone.”