VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Italian authorities on Thursday (May 7) gave the go-ahead for public Masses starting May 18, after the government and Catholic bishops struggled to find an accord that would ensure safety measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A protocol allowing Catholic faithful to attend Mass was signed Thursday by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte; the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (Cei), Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti; and the Italian minister of the Interior.
“The protocol is the fruit of a profound collaboration and synergy between the government, the Scientific and Technical Committee and Cei, in which each did his part responsibly,” Bassetti said during a news conference after the signing of the document.
For the first time since March 9, when the Italian government enacted a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of the pandemic, Catholic faithful will be able to attend Mass with priests in places of worship.
The protocol specifies how churches must be sanitized and the faithful must be socially distanced to prevent contagions. Depending on the size of the place of worship, the number of people in attendance must be limited by volunteers at the entrance. Parishes and dioceses must also inform churchgoers about the safety measures in place.
“The required safety measures in the text present the appropriate methods and modalities to ensure the reopening of liturgical celebrations with the people takes place in the safest way,” Conte told local reporters at the news conference, while thanking Cei for “the material and moral support that it gave to the entire collective nation in this difficult time for the country.”
To prevent large crowds from gathering in churches, the protocol asks that parishes celebrate a higher number of Masses throughout the day. Priests will be required to wear a health mask and gloves during Mass, while the water font will remain empty and the sign of peace is forbidden.
Other faith communities in Italy are engaging in conversations with government authorities to resume their religious celebrations.
The agreement between the Italian government and the Catholic bishops was not easy to achieve. In late April, members of Cei voiced their disappointment when churches were not allowed to open to the faithful on May 4 as Italy began “Phase Two,” which included the reopening of parks and libraries.
In a document made public by Cei on April 26, the bishops reminded local authorities of the immense contribution of churches, dioceses and Catholic nongovernmental organizations in serving the poor, the sick and homeless during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Catholic priests in Italy begin to imagine with excitement and some degree of uncertainty what celebrating Mass with the faithful will be like in the near future.
“Who will we let in and who will we ask not to enter once the pews are occupied? These are some of the legitimate questions that my brother priests write,” said the Rev. Fortunato Di Noto, a priest in the Southern Italian region of Sicily, in an email to Religion News Service.
“Some priests are hesitant, are still afraid to open, it’s too soon, too much hurry. These are legitimate perplexities,” he wrote.
Di Noto said he and other priests trust in the shared responsibility of the Catholic and civil community and will do their best to adapt to the stringent rules for the reopening of churches.
“The virus changed our lives and it will increasingly impose a change in pastoral perspectives, which will have to be reinvented,” he wrote.
The internet, DiNoto noted, should still be used as an option for those who cannot attend Mass. “It has opened a new era in the transmission of the faith with the hope that humanity will remain always human, needful of God and not of religious services, like any other service. Because faith is not a business activity, but much more.”