ROME – Amid the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Italy, Pope Francis on Sunday praised the “creativity” of priests who, despite the suspension of Masses and heavy restrictions on movement, are finding unique and effective ways to be with their people.

Father Giuseppe Corbari – pastor of the Saints Quirico and Giulitta parish in Robbiano, on the periphery of Milan in Italy’s Lombardy region, which is at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak – could easily fall into this category.

When the coronavirus broke out in Lombardy last month, prompting the Feb. 24 suspension of all public Masses in the region, Corbari wanted to find a way to be with his 5,500 registered parishioners, even though they were not able to come to Mass.

Speaking to Crux, Corbari said that shortly after Masses were suspended, “the need arose to at least see the faces of the people in my parish, because celebrating Mass looking at the empty pews was sad.”

He issued a clarion call through the parish’s Telegram account for people to send him photos and selfies so he could tape them to the pews inside his parish, he said, explaining that he received around 100 pictures, which he now looks at every time he says Mass.

“This gesture meant a lot to the people, who even in staying home, were still present,” Corbari said, noting that soon after, word got out about what he had done and people from other parishes and cities began to send their pictures too.

Within a few days, his pastoral gesture had gone viral. Photos were shared on Facebook and news outlets from Italy and abroad began calling to hear the story.

“I am receiving hundreds of messages from the faithful, and phone calls from throughout Italy. All of Italy is calling me,” he said, adding that he is “truly amazed with the echo that this has had.”

Corbari said he did not expect his decision to become a story and is shocked at the attention it has gotten both nationally and internationally.

“I am moved by this resonance because it overcomes all expectations,” he said. “I did it for my parish, and it turned out like this…I was truly amazed. I never, never thought it would be like this.”

Referring to Pope Francis’s applause for pastoral “creativity” amid the coronavirus outbreak, which was given during his Sunday Angelus address, Corbari said he doesn’t know the specifics of who the pope was referring to, but news of his gesture broke a few days before the pope’s speech, “so I don’t exclude that the Holy Father was informed about this initiative and that he was perhaps referring to this.”

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Corbari’s parish also livestreams Masses on Sundays for parishioners to watch, while daily Masses are transmitted through a local parish radio station.

“People also want to be present as a community, as a parish, even if they are each at home,” he said, noting that he is unaware of any coronavirus infections among his parishioners, but is praying for them as the outbreak continues.

“As a person, as a man, I live the same trepidation that the people are experiencing: the fear of contracting the virus, this is undeniable,” he said, stressing that he is following all of the necessary precautions to avoid contracting the virus, and transmitting it.

As a priest, he said he is turning to prayers and the Mass “as an important source of strength,” for both himself and his parish as uncertainty and fear continue.

“Even without the physical presence of the faithful, I am in communion with the Church. When I pray, I pray feeling the presence of the parishioners, so I pray with them and for them. I am trying to create closeness to them,” he said, adding, “Certainly, social media is a good means now to be in contact with parishioners.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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