ROME – While Catholics in Italy are enthusiastic about finally being able to attend Mass after a two months hiatus due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, there are several other areas of ecclesial life that are still on hold.
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), said in a statement Saturday that the highly anticipated return to public Masses is “an important event” and “a moment of grace” for the entire Church.
“It is not simply a reopening of a sacred place, of our churches, which have always remained open. It is rather a return to expressing our being a community, our being a family,” he said, urging the country’s Catholics to pray “for the grace to be able to return to being a large family of God.”
“Even if we have experienced our being Church in the small domestic family, where we have lived many values by being close to each other,” he said, now is the moment “to return to the big family.”
However, even as Catholics once again took their place in the pews Monday for the resumption of public Masses, ecclesial life, like much of the rest of Italian society, is still far from being back to normal.
In many churches, for instance, the holy water has been replaced with hand sanitizer, and Mass attendees are required to wear masks, and in some cases gloves, they must stand at least three feet apart, there is no sign of peace and communion can only be received in the hand.
Though they were never suspended during Italy’s two-month lockdown, baptisms and weddings must also follow a strict protocol.
According to Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, practices vary depending on the individual diocese or parish, but for both weddings and baptisms, attendees must practice the general norms of social distancing and come equipped with proper personal protective gear.
For baptism, the bishops have generally discouraged full immersion, instead recommending that water is poured onto the head. The priest administering baptism must wear disposable gloves for the anointing, tossing them out after one use.
A bishop or pastor can add other requirements or restrictions as they see fit. In the Diocese of Padua, priests are discouraged from baptizing several infants or children at the same time. In Andria, weekdays have been prioritized as baptism days, and in the Diocese of Mazara del Vallo, the effata ritual has been removed, meaning the moment when the priest touches the ears and mouth of the child.
For weddings, things shifted slightly with the May 18 national re-opening. During the lockdown, only the spouses and their witnesses were allowed to be present during the ceremony. Now, the rules are more flexible, with the number of attendees depending on social distancing requirements.
In the Archdiocese of Agrigento, the tradition of throwing rice on the newlyweds at the end of the ceremony has been banned.
However, the bishops noted that “the number of marriages postponed due to COVID-19 are many.”
Priests have been encouraged to sit down with future spouses who have delayed their marriage before their wedding, in part to see if they’ve had a change of heart in the time that has elapsed.
Funerals, which had largely been banned apart from small, graveside ceremonies with just immediate family present, resumed May 4 with a maximum of 15 people allowed. As of Monday, the number of people who can attend, much like weddings, depends on what the parish capacity is with social distancing.
Some dioceses have encouraged parishes to hold funerals only in the afternoons, when regular Masses are not scheduled, and others have opted to end the ceremony with the blessing of the coffin at the altar, omitting the tradition of accompanying the deceased to the door of the church.
The Anointing of the Sick is to be given on an as-needed basis, and the priest administering the sacrament is required to use a mask and disposable gloves, to be thrown away after one use.
National protocols call for confession to take place in open and airy parts of the church which allow both priest and penitent to maintain proper distance, while also ensuring privacy. Because of this, confessionals are still out of the question.
Confirmations and First Communions, both of which typically happen in May or June, have both been put on hold. Confirmations have been suspended until further notice, and parishes have been asked to reschedule First Communion Masses, which will likely take place sometime this fall.
In his statement, Bassetti insisted that while certainly not the norm, the masks and reduced contact in liturgical celebrations for the foreseeable future are “an invitation to rediscover the strength of the gaze.”
Noting that during his daily Masses during the lockdown, Pope Francis always invited those present to make a sign of peace with a nod of the head or another similar gesture, Bassetti said this can also be done in parishes.
“You cannot exchange peace by getting close and giving your hand, but you can do it at a distance with a smile, a sweet and kind gaze, which becomes a way of communicating peace, joy and love. And thus, even at a distance, we can try to exchange peace,” he said.
Bassetti said that on Sunday, which marks the first Sunday when public Masses will be celebrated in over two months, he will sing the ancient Te Deum hymn, and he urged parishes to do the same, saying the song can be “our perfect praise to the Holy Trinity, because everything comes from the heart of God.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen