ROME – This week several major Italian dioceses have canceled Ash Wednesday services and suspended public Masses amid growing alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Italy, which at the heart of the worst outbreak in Europe.
There are over 150 reported cases of the coronavirus in Italy so far, most of which are concentrated in the northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy.
Over the weekend Italian regional officials canceled school and major public events, including the popular Venice Carnival and several major sporting events, which in Veneto will be halted until March 1. Some areas are already under quarantine.
According to the Associated Press, family of Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Vatican’s office for evangelization, is among those quarantined in a town near Venice.
Catholic dioceses throughout northern Italy have also taken precautions, which in many cases includes the suspension of public Masses and the cancellation of Ash Wednesday services. Taking place on Feb. 26, Ash Wednesday is the most highly attended Catholic liturgy apart from Christmas and Easter.
In Padua, the Basilica of St. Anthony has suspended the celebration of public Masses, including Ash Wednesday, as well as confessions and the traditional praying of the Way of the Cross until March 1. However, the basilica will still be open for personal prayer, with only a few allowed in at a time.
The Archdiocese of Milan has issued similar precautions. All public celebrations have been cancelled from Feb. 24 until further notice.
In Bologna, Ash Wednesday Masses have also been cancelled, along with any other large celebrations that would typically draw a large crowd. In place of Mass, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who oversees the archdiocese, has said he will publish a prayer for families, and has asked that Catholics recite it on Feb. 26 at 9p.m. He has also asked families to use their time inside for more prayer and reflection.
However, in Rome there has been little impact from the coronavirus concerns. While certain precautions are being taken, public Masses are still ongoing, and Ash Wednesday services are scheduled to take place as normal.
As he does most every year, Pope Francis will mark the day by leading a procession from the church of Sant’Anselmo to that of Santa Sabina, where he will preside over Mass and administer ashes on the foreheads of attendees.
In a statement Feb. 24, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that as a precaution, hand sanitizer dispensers have been placed in Vatican offices. A nurse and doctor are also on call should any issues arise.
Bruni stressed that the Holy See is in “constant contact” with officials from Italy’s Lazio region as well as the Italian Ministry of Health’s task force for handling the coronavirus.
“Precisely in compliance with the provisions of the Italian authorities, some events scheduled for the next few days in closed places and with a significant public influx have been postponed,” he said, though he did not specify which events were put on hold.
In comments to journalists at a Feb. 24 press briefing on Pope Francis’s Lenten message for 2020, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson urged media to be responsible with what they report when it comes to the virus.
He also encouraged Catholics to not just sit back and watch as tragedy strikes, but to somehow get involved in helping to contain the virus.
“All of us in these days with the episode of the coronavirus, we assist from in front of the television, like with other miseries and difficulties in other parts of the world,” he said, but cautioned that media, while providing information, can also “create certain barriers.”
“You can see something happening, but you can see yourself not involved. In front of the TV, you can see some instances of war, but you feel detached because you aren’t there in this instance of suffering and misery,” he said.
“This is the character that can be upsetting about the media,” he said. “It allows us to experience things, but at the same time, it can also develop in us an attitude Pope Francis calls, to observe something from the balcony,” meaning a person might see something, but they observe without getting involved.
Rather than remaining a spectator, Turkson encouraged Catholics to “feel pushed to try to get involved, doing something that can ultimately help the problem that was presented through the media.”
In comments to the press, Mariella Enoc, president of the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu children’s hospital, said they are collaborating with Rome’s Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases.
Though there have been no coronavirus cases at Bambino Gesu, Enoc said that as a precaution they have already decided that any children who contract the coronavirus will be sent to Spallanzani.
“We will send and have already sent our pediatricians, our nurses, our drugs, and our financial help,” Enoc said. “Instead of having children come to Bambino Gesu, where there are very delicate cases, we preferred that Bambino Gesu went to Spallanzani.”
Enoc said she believes the peak of the disease has already passed, and that the number of cases, at least in China, where the virus originated, will begin to go down.
“In China the peak is already diminishing. Every influenza has a peak and then a descent,” she said, adding that in Rome, “We feel calm.”
She voiced her hope that the outbreak “does not become a political issue, because this is not political; this is a question of health and the wellbeing of Italians.” She also voiced hope that the virus does not spread to Africa, where there are fewer resources to handle an outbreak.
Several bishops have also issued statements addressing concerns surrounding the virus, including Cardinal John Tong, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who is overseeing the diocese again until a new bishop is named.
Nearly two weeks ago Tong cancelled all public Masses in Hong Kong to avoid further spread of the coronavirus.
In his Lenten message to the diocese, Tong noted that at a time when most people are isolated and rushing to grocery stores to stock up amid increasing panic, there is also great generosity seen in the medical personnel who are treating those who are infected and providing medical supplies.
He urged Catholics in the diocese “to grasp this opportunity and learn to reject the inner self-centered voice,” focusing instead on prayer and generosity.
Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon and president of the Asian bishops conference, also issued a statement in which he said the outbreak “is the time of universal brotherhood of humanity. It is not a time for mutual blame.”
Urging Catholics to pray for those affected by the outbreak, Bo asked that “the army of prayer warriors rise in robust defiance against this sickness with prayers. Let the Masses and adorations be held in every church for our suffering brothers and sisters.”
Global disasters are a time for fellowship, he said, noting that the spread of disease makes no distinction between language, religion, color or economic status.
“The filthy virus, not visible to eye, can bring ‘superpowers’ and ‘economic powerhouses’ to knees. Proliferation of nuclear arms, stockpiling deadly weapons, robust GDPs (have) not protected any countries against the tiny invisible virus,” Bo said.
Human activities that alter the climate, genetic experiments and biological warfare by countries “are explosive risks to future of humanity,” he said, adding that the COVID 19 virus “could be an experiment went wrong.”
Bo insisted that disasters such as the virus outbreak are a reminder that God is the ultimate power, and that “natural disasters, pandemics are grim reminder of our restricted existence.”
“We are powerless in the face of (an) invisible microbe attack despite stockpiling lethal arsenal of arms,” he said, adding that “weapons of death are available but no antidote so far this virus! Life becomes a commodity. Sacredness of human life is superseded by economic interests.”
While emergency responses are needed, Bo said the outbreak must also prompt a “serious introspection” about the “ultimate meaning and destination of human life.”
“Disasters and Virus pandemic periodically remind humanity that we all have only one planet: We either stand together or fall together. Lessons need to be learned, transcending parochial interests,” he said, adding, “Humanity will overcome because it has more grace to be compassionate.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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