ROME – Since the beginning of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Italy – as the site of the first major outbreak in Europe – has been a point of reference for other nations in terms of handling the virus.
It has also been a focal point for Church leaders attempting to balance Church-State relations while also juggling the need for the sacraments with legitimate health and safety concerns.
This was especially true because Italy is the pope’s backyard.
Throughout Italy’s outbreak, the Italian bishops have insisted on respecting government restrictions and they followed those provisions so strictly that at one point, Pope Francis himself weighed in and stopped them from closing the churches in Rome, even for private prayer.
The only time the bishops appeared to falter from that stand was in late April when, after weeks of unsuccessfully negotiating with the government about a date to restart public liturgies, they called the lack of government cooperation an affront to religious freedom threatened to act on their “own autonomy.”
They were reigned in a day later by Pope Francis, who in one of his daily livestreamed Masses urged “prudence and obedience” in leaving the country’s lockdown.
Since then, the bishops have been silently obedient to all government safety requirements for returning to active liturgical life.
However, last week the bishops announced that they would be making their first step away from these requirements – which include wearing masks and gloves, eliminating the sign of peace, no communion on the tongue and having an ample supply of hand sanitizer available in place of holy water – by asking the government for permission to stop wearing gloves while distributing communion, and for spouses to be mask-free during weddings.
In their response, the Techno-Scientific Committee charged with evaluating restrictions agreed to the bishops’ request, saying gloves are no longer required when distributing communion so long as the priest carries out “a scrupulous cleaning of their hands with hydroalcoholic solutions” between consuming the Eucharist and distributing it to the faithful.
The committee also stipulated that there be no contact whatsoever between the hands of the priest and the hands of the faithful during the distribution of communion. If contact does happen, the priest is required to go and cleanse his hands again before finishing the distribution.
Faithful are also encouraged to cleanse or sanitize their hands before communion, and it is still forbidden to receive the Eucharist on the tongue.
In terms of weddings, the committee noted that spouses “certainly cannot be considered foreign to each other,” and so can refrain from wearing masks so long as the celebrating priest wears one and maintains at least 3-feet of distance from the couple.
This exception was also extended to civil marriages and weddings in other religious denominations.
The request to stop using gloves can perhaps be seen as a little ironic for those who remember Father Leonardo Ricotta, a conservative priest who resigned in May over the requirement to wear gloves while distributing communion.
After the requirements for restarting Masses were announced, Ricotta stepped down from his position as pastor of the Church of Sant’Agata a Villabate in the Archdiocese of Palermo in Sicily, arguing that to wear gloves while distributing communion turns the act into a “Eucharistic butcher shop.”
“Administering communion like that is a sacrilege,” Ricotta said May 18 during his first public Mass since the lockdown began in early March. “Fragments of the Body of Christ could stick to gloves that are then thrown away. Am I supposed to throw Christ into the recycling bin? I’d rather not give it at all.”
Widespread social media attention to Ricotta’s statement and subsequent resignation prompted the archdiocese to release its own statement insisting that the priest had not been removed but stepped down of his own accord.
It’s now clear that Ricotta was not alone in his position.
As things move forward, this dance between the Italian bishops and government will continue to be watched by other national Churches as they seek to move out of lockdown restrictions.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen