ROME – Father Ivan Maffeis, spokesman for the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), confirmed Church officials Friday met with representatives of the Italian Interior Ministry to discuss the gradual return to a normal sacramental life, with specific regard to Mass and funerals.

Speaking to Crux, Maffeis said the bishops’ conference has maintained consistent contact with the ministry since the nationwide lockdown began in early March, and that over the past month, “we’ve found great attention and interest from the government on this and other issues.”

“We don’t always get what we want, but we’ve found tremendous interest,” he said, adding that in Friday’s meeting, ministry officials “listened with great interest and showed commitment to take our proposals seriously.”

“It was a conversation in which we presented certain requests regarding both a way of returning to the Eucharistic celebration as well as a way of accompanying our dead,” he said. “We also talked about the state, and how precious it would be for the church to offer a service and a space for children and youth.”

Maffeis said it is still too early to talk about a concrete date for when public Masses will begin again, in part because the ministry is preparing a new decree on lockdown restrictions. Though he could not provide details, Maffeis said CEI is part of the discussions.

“We can’t expect that the government would issue a decree just for us. We’re trying to present our hopes and needs, but it’s not possible to give a date,” he said, explaining that the nature of Friday’s meeting was “interlocutory,” but not decision-making.

He said that based on the discussion, CEI will rework their proposal and send another draft to the ministry, considering both the political and scientific perspectives, as well as the needs of the ecclesial community.

“We found attention and welcome, and also some detailed reactions,” Maffeis said, adding that their proposal, which presented “certain needs of the Christian community,” was informally welcomed.

“Obviously, the political side is moving in conjunction with the scientific-technical committee made up of experts whose role is to evaluate the steps needed to exit from the pandemic, trying to avoid that someone acts on their own without everyone else,” he said, adding that for the government, “the steps they have to take aren’t entirely dependent on politics.”

Since the Italian bishops announced the suspension of all public Masses March 8 in keeping with government measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, leaders in the local ecclesial scene have largely supported the measures.

However, there have been growing complaints from both politicians and private citizens who argue that access to the sacraments is just as essential as access to grocery stores and tobacco shops, if not more so, and that the citation of citizens going to church to pray during the crisis is an affront on freedom of worship.

With the number of new cases reaching an all-time low since the outbreak in Italy began, with just 1,127 new cases reported on Wednesday, pressure on the government and the bishops to lift the ban on ecclesial life has increased.

Maffeis said he believes that based on how things are going, “there will be a transitional phase,” though he could not offer details of what this phase might entail.

“We know that the pandemic is still underway, and there’s still a risk to everyone’s health and wellbeing. We don’t in any way want to underestimate this risk, which would truly be an irresponsible step, especially for the nurses and doctors who’ve carried the burden of caring for others,” he said.

He insisted that the revised proposals CEI will send to the Interior Ministry will “take account of the situation we’re in, with a sense of responsibility and full respect for the needs of public health and at the same time the importance of restarting a community life.”

“Among other things, we can’t try to replace the scientific committee and the political system. We also don’t want to forget the situation we’re in. We can’t just forget what’s happened over these five or six weeks,” he said. On the other hand, with so many fatalities, he stressed that “we can’t simply continue to impede people from saying goodbye to the dead.”

Since the outbreak began, public funerals have either been forbidden or limited to a handful of immediate relatives.

“We need to find a way that people who die are accompanied, but we’re also thinking of the trauma of someone who not only loses a loved one but wasn’t able to be close to them, for reasons of health precautions, but wasn’t able to accompany them after death,” Maffeis said.

“It’s as if they died almost invisible,” he said. “The pain in families is enormous, and as the Church we need to respond in whatever way we can.”

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