ROME — While the Italian bishops and government officials continue negotiating a way to resume the public celebration of Masses, the government provided guidelines that permit the celebration of funerals beginning May 4.
During the first phase of easing the COVID-19 lockdown, only the immediate family of the deceased — and no more than 15 people — can be present for the funeral; they must stay three feet apart during the service and wear face masks, said the note from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the general secretary of the bishops’ conference.
The funeral can be held inside a church or chapel or can be an outdoor service, but not both, said the note, which was posted on the Italian bishops’ website April 30.
While small funerals are permitted, the note said, “safeguarding public health and not jeopardizing the important efforts already made still require the limitation of certain constitutional rights, including the exercise of freedom of worship.”
Therefore, the ministry said, care should be taken to ensure that as soon as the funeral is over, the 15 or fewer people present disperse, and there is to be no “cortege accompanying the transporting of the coffin,” a common practice, especially in southern Italy.
Determining “the liturgical form of the celebration belongs to the competency of church authorities, taking prudent account of the different situations in different territories and local traditions and customs, while assuring that the ceremony is done in a limited amount of time.”
The rites of final commendation and valediction, which end a Catholic funeral, “are to be done in the same place where the funeral rite was conducted,” the note said.
If the funeral includes a Mass, it continued, “physical contact — for example, during the exchange of a sign of peace — must be avoided in compliance with the ecclesiastical regulations already in force.”
If the funeral is being held in a closed setting, such as a church or chapel, it must be large enough for the 15 people to stay a safe distance from each other and from the celebrant, and it must be sanitized before and after the service, the government instruction said.
Meanwhile, the bishops’ conference and government officials continue to discuss ideas for how it would be possible to resume the regular celebration of Masses other than funerals.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced April 26 an easing of the lockdown measures in stages through June 1, but they did not include the resumption of Masses. Conte said that members of the national COVID-19 technical-scientific committee did not see a way to ensure everyone’s safety, especially at the moment of the distribution of Communion. Even if Communion is given only in the hand, they said, the priest or eucharistic minister and the person receiving Communion would be closer than is safe.
Since Conte’s announcement, and the Italian bishops’ reaction that he “arbitrarily” banned Masses, the bishops and government officials have been meeting regularly to discuss ideas. As of April 30, no decision had been made.
Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, reported April 30 that if the small funerals do not seem to contribute to a jump in COVID-19 infections, it may be possible to celebrate outdoor Masses beginning May 11 and in churches May 25, as long as people maintain social distancing and wear masks and gloves.