ROME – Not much has changed in Italy in terms of Church life since the second wave of COVID-19 hit in the fall, however, the country’s bishops have made one small adjustment for Sunday Mass, allowing churchgoers to extend a non-physical sign of appreciation their neighbor in the pews.
The change was announced by the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) Wednesday following their Jan. 26 virtual winter general assembly, and goes into effect Feb. 14, a day on which much of the world celebrates Valentine’s Day.
Public liturgies were suspended for the duration of Italy’s 3-month lockdown when the coronavirus hit in the spring of last year.
Once the lockdown lifted, churches were allowed to offer Mass again, provided they adhered to certain rules, including no holy water, no sign of peace – usually expressed with a handshake, hug, or kiss on the cheek – and provided that Mass-goers observed social distance, used a mask and hand sanitizer, and received communion on the hand, without coming into contact with the fingers of the priest distributing it.
In most cases, the sign of peace at Mass has been skipped altogether; however, in some parishes it has become common practice for faithful to be invited to perform the gesture, but with a small wave or nod of the head, rather than a handshake.
In much of the world, an elbow-bump has become the new normal in terms of greeting someone, as handshakes have either been banned or are seriously frowned on due to social distancing requirements, including at Mass.
In their statement, CEI said that with no clear timeline in sight for when Mass will be able to return to normal, the sign of peace is being restored, but insisted anything physical – including an elbow-bump – is not allowed.
“As it does not appear appropriate in the liturgical context to substitute the handshake or embrace with a touch of the elbow, in this time it may be sufficient and more meaningful to look into each other’s eyes and wish each other the gift of peace, accompanied by a simple bow of the head,” the bishops said.
When the priest tells faithful to “exchange the gift of peace” during Mass, “turning your eyes to intercept those of your neighbor and hinting a bow…can eloquently, confidently, and sensitively express the search for the face of the other, to welcome and exchange the gift of peace, the foundation of every fraternity.”
The bishops urged pastors to send a reminder to their congregations to refrain from a handshake if necessary, saying an exchange of glances “can be a sober and effective way to recover the gesture.”
So far, the only other change the bishops have made to their guidelines since issuing them in May was the decision in June to release priests from the obligation of wearing disposable gloves for the distribution of communion, which had previously been a requirement.
In a statement issued at that time, CEI said gloves were no longer required for 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.
For some, part of the concern in wearing gloves was that fragments of the Eucharist would stick to the gloves and be thrown out when communion was over.
There have been no changes any of the other sacraments, and there are no indications yet when of when a possible return to normal might happen.
In the past 24 hours, Italy has recorded 15,204 new cases of COVID-19 and 467 coronavirus-related deaths, signaling that while some 1.5 million people have already been vaccinated, there is still a long way to go before the pandemic is over.
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