ROME – Dating back to March 8, when the bishops’ conference announced the suspension of all public Masses in keeping with government measures to combat the coronavirus, Italy’s ecclesiastical lockdown is the longest-running in the world, and to date support at the leadership level has been remarkably compact.
On Holy Saturday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte wrote to Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, to thank them for the cooperation.
“Above all, I desire to express my gratitude for having taken the painful decision to celebrate the liturgies sine populo (“without people”), in the awareness of the greater good involved in this difficult chapter of our national story,” Conte wrote, himself a Catholic whose uncle was a Capuchin friar and assistant to St. Padre Pio.
“The Italian church once again has demonstrated its natural vocation to dialogue and cooperation with civil institutions, and its capacity to read, with wisdom and discernment, the signs of the times,” Conte said.
Yet now that Italy has begun to relax some of its restrictions, allowing bookstores, stationary shops and stores for babies and children to reopen today, there are signs the compact between church and state may be fraying.
On Easter, Archbishop Riccardo Fontana of Arezzo became the first Italian prelate to push a government official publicly about the shutdown.
“Why is it okay to go to the market to buy an artichoke, but not to go to church for the blessing of olive oil?” Fontana asked during a traditional Easter evening TV message to the citizens of Arezzo, with Mayor Alessandro Ghinelli also taking part.
Fontana’s reference was the usual Holy Thursday Chrism Mass, when oils are blessed to be used in sacraments throughout the year. In late March, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ruled that local bishops could decide to reschedule the Chrism Mass but not other Holy Week liturgies.
“The cathedral is the largest covered edifice in the city, so explain to me why it’s permitted to enter supermarkets in reasonable numbers but not the church,” Fontana said. While insisting that the local church has been obedient, he also called the limits on sacramental life “horrible” and a source of “great suffering.”
A seemingly startled Ghinelli replied that the restrictive measures, which he called “a sacrifice for everyone,” are intended to end the crisis as quickly as possible.
“The sooner we can get out of this situation, the sooner we can hug each other again,” he said.
Though Fontana is the first bishop to break ranks in such a public fashion, he’s hardly the only religious voice in Italy questioning the logic of the complete suspension of normal church life.
Also on Easter, Alessandro Meluzzi, a well-known psychiatrist, criminologist and TV commentator, as well as a leader in the Italian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, called the suspension of public liturgies “an enormous mistake.”
“Churches are closed, but supermarkets are open,” Meluzzi said. “I’d say that the data we have about the circulation of air inside those markets isn’t necessarily better that that of immense churches with extremely high ceilings and optimal air flow. These are churches where people can easily go in maintaining a great distance.”
Catholic journalist Maurizio Scandurra also complained about the clampdown over the Easter weekend.
“Couldn’t it be done in church like it’s done for picking up pension checks in the Post Office, taking turns in alphabetical order on alternating days?” Scandurra asked.
“It wouldn’t have any impact on the risk of infection. There’s ample space in churches for accommodating people with security. All that’s required is to avoid physical contact and to respect distances, abstaining for a while from typical gestures of popular devotion such as kissing, touching and caressing sacred icons,” he said.
Frustration with the closures can also be glimpsed in a steady drumbeat of citations and fines issued by police in various Italian localities for unauthorized gatherings in churches.
The most recent such incident came on Saturday night in Scafati, in southern Italy’s Calabria region, where police broke up an Easter vigil prayer service at the church of St. Mary of the Virgins involving a group of roughly thirty people, acting on tips on social media channels. According to media reports, those involved have been ordered to self-isolate for fourteen days.
Father Giovanni De Riggiapologized on the parish’s Facebook page, but insisted he thought he was acting within the terms of a March 27 protocol issued by the country’s Interior Ministry permitting small numbers of people to take part in church services for Holy Week.
“In the celebration held behind closed doors, there were only the figures required by the rite along with their families, all of whom were seated one per pew, in full respect of the social distance imposed and without any public gathering,” De Riggi wrote.
In Sanremo in northwestern Italy, home to the country’s most famous music festival, police over the weekend raided a church on Easter Sunday on suspicions that an illicit public Mass might be underway. According to reports, however, police withdrew after finding only a small group of people engaged in private prayer and observing appropriate distances.
Yet the coronavirus restrictions also have prominent defenders in the Italian church.
Theologian Vito Mancuso, a laicized ex-priest who’s a theological protégé of Archbishop Bruone Forte, a key ally and adviser to Pope Francis, dismissed calls from some Italian politicians to reopen churches in an Easter interview.
“Those who’ve backed reopening the churches in order to gain a few points in the polls are part of that category of humanity that’s always used God to support their earthly traffic,” Mancuso said. “There’s never any shortage of them, but it has nothing to do with spirituality.”
For now, it remains to be seen when Italy’s government may greenlight a gradual return to normal ecclesiastical life.
“We’re once again representing the expectations and commitments of the ecclesiastical community to the government,” said Father Ivan Maffeis, spokesman for the Italian bishops’ conference, on Good Friday.
“I can’t tell you more than that,” he said.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.