ROME – As Italy tightens a nationwide lockdown while the death toll from the coronavirus mounts, the government has issued new regulations for access to religious venues, specifying that weddings and baptisms are permitted for tightly limited groups but that merely going to church is not a legitimate reason to be out of one’s home.

The “Central Direction for Affairs of Cult,” a department within the country’s Interior Ministry, issued the instructions Saturday in a note addressed to police offices across the country, in response to a request for clarity from the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI.

Weddings and baptisms, according to the note, “are not barred in themselves” as part of the sweeping restrictions on movements decreed by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to combat the virus, which so far has claimed almost 11,000 lives.

On weddings, the note said, “Where the rite takes place just in the presence of the celebrants, the couple and their witnesses, and prescriptions regarding distance among participants are respected, it’s not to be considered among the prohibited cases.”

The bishops also requested clarity about liturgies during Holy Week, which begins next Sunday, April 5, with Palm Sunday.

In response, the Interior Ministry specified that liturgies are permitted but must be limited to “celebrants, a deacon, a lector, an organist and singer,” as well as a couple of people to operate the broadcast or livestream.

Those individuals, the note said, should fill out the “auto-certification” form all Italians are presently required to carry when they leave their homes. If they do so, it said, then “they will not be impeded or subject to sanctions for not respecting the dispositions” of the lockdown.

The form, the government said, must contain the date and time of the liturgy and the address of the church or other setting where it takes place.

Though public Masses are suspended across Italy, parish churches theoretically remain open for private prayer. The Interior Ministry specified, however, that simply leaving one’s house to go to church is not among legitimate exceptions to the lockdown.

“It’s necessary that access to church happen only as part of movements determined by proven motives of work or situations of necessity,” it said. “Necessity” here has been defined as leaving home to go to a neighborhood grocery store or pharmacy, going to a hospital or clinic for health reasons, or getting home from work or a shopping trip.

“The church must be on one’s way, so that if the police force is conducting a control, one can show the prescribed auto-certification or make an oral declaration regarding the existence of these specific reasons,” the note said.

Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, offered an example to illustrate the rule.

“If I go out to go to work or go shopping and, along the way, my parish or another church is open, I can go in to pray, obviously respecting the minimum distance from other faithful,” it said. “But it’s not possible to get in the car and drive across town to go to a sanctuary or church named for a saint to whom I’m devoted.”

The Interior Ministry note insisted that the restrictions don’t constitute an abridgement of religious freedom because they’re not targeted specifically at churches but are part of a broader national response intended to combat the virus.

Italy’s bishops had requested clarification from the government amid what had seemed an ad-hoc and often locally determined enforcement with regard to churches.

In the Church of San Gennaro Vesuviano in the province of Naples, a parish priest and a photographer, along with the parents and godfather, were cited in mid-March for celebrating the baptism of an infant. In the small town of Giulianova in Italy’s central-eastern Abruzzo region, the mayor, Jwan Costantini, along with two other city officials and four priests, were cited by Italy’s military police March 25 after Costantini took part in a ceremony entrusting the Italian flag to the Madonna dello Splendore, considered the city’s patron saint.

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Italy is stepping up enforcement of its quarantine regulations as public health authorities warn the peak of the pandemic here has not yet been reached, and that infection and death rates could climb even higher if the lockdown isn’t respected.

On Saturday, March 29, the police set a new record, conducting almost 200,000 spot-checks nationwide and issuing almost 5,000 fines. According to reports, roughly 50 of those people cited for illegitimate movements had previously tested positive for the coronavirus and were supposed to be in self-isolation.

Meanwhile, Italian priests are being forced to find creative ways to reach out despite the lockdown protocols.

In Rome, a local pastor named Father Raffaele Giacopuzzi, nicknamed “Padre Raf,” celebrated what he dubbed an “Over the Top” Mass on Sunday, climbing up to the rooftop of his Church of the Most Holy Trinity in the city’s Trieste-Salario neighborhood to celebrate Sunday Mass, even contributing his own musical accompaniment by playing the guitar. According to reports, people in the neighborhood came out onto their own rooftops and balconies to follow the Mass, applauding Giacopuzzi at the end.

“I miss everybody very much,” Giacopuzzi told Avvenire. “I’m happy that at least for this morning, I managed to celebrate a little bit with my community.”

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