ROME — On Sunday evening the Italian bishops’ conference announced the suspension of all public Masses and liturgical celebrations until April 3 amid growing fears surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, after the Italian government ordered the closure of all cinemas, museums and theaters.

In a March 8 statement, the bishops cited a decree issued by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers in Italy signed the same day stipulating that effective immediately, “civil and religious ceremonies, including funeral ceremonies, are suspended at a preventative level throughout the country until Friday, April 3.”

Noting that the decree causes “suffering and difficulty” for both priests and faithful, the bishops insisted that the directive was accepted by the conference “solely by the desire to do its part, also in this situation, to contribute to the protection of public health.”

From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, the national bishops’ conference has urged Catholics to adhere to government restrictions in order to stop the spread of the virus.

As of Sunday evening, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Italy had risen from 233 on Saturday to 366, officials have said. The total number of confirmed cases now stands at 7,375 – up from 5,883 on Saturday.

Earlier Sunday afternoon government officials announced the closure of all theaters, cinemas and museums throughout the country.

In his March 8 Angelus address, which was livestreamed from the library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace, Pope Francis offered his prayers for all those impacted by the coronavirus, saying, “I am close in prayer to all people suffering from the current coronavirus epidemic and to all those who care for them.”

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“I unite myself to my brother bishops in encouraging faithful to live this difficult moment with the strength of faith, the certainty of hope and the fervor of charity,” he said, adding that the Church’s Lenten season “helps give an evangelical meaning also to this moment of trial.”

Francis also commented on the strangeness of doing the Angelus through a livestream, saying he was “a little bit caged” in the apostolic palace as a preventative measure to avoid further transmission of the coronavirus.

This week’s March 11 papal general audience, during which the pope offers a catechesis in different languages to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, will also be livestreamed in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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