ROME – Austria’s bishops have postponed their ad limina visit to Rome, insisting they didn’t want to leave amid the country’s new strict coronavirus lockdown and fierce debate over potential vaccine mandates.

Speaking to Austrian Catholic news outlet Kathpress Tuesday, Archbishop Franz Lackner of Salzburg, president of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, said “Since the situation in Austria is very tense due to the fourth lockdown, we bishops now want to stay with the people as a sign of solidarity in the country.”

Lackner said the Austrian bishops, who have all been vaccinated, held a video call Monday in which they discussed the postponement, and there was unanimous agreement that it was the best course of action to take given the current situation in Austria.

This decision, Lackner said, was difficult, because “we have been preparing intensively for the ad limina visit for a long time and have been looking forward to the exchange with Pope Francis and his closest colleagues.”

He insisted the postponement of the ad limina is “a sign of solidarity with everyone who, as convalescent or vaccinated, currently has to do without a lot in order to find a way out of a life-threatening pandemic together.”

An ad limina visit, during which bishops meet with the pope and various departments of the Roman Curia, and traditionally make a pilgrimage to the four papal basilicas in Rome, is required of all bishops’ conferences every few years.

Scheduled for Nov. 29-Dec. 3, the Austrian bishops’ ad limina visit was initially scheduled for February of this year, but was postponed because of the coronavirus, making this the second time the visit has been postponed due to the pandemic.

The decision to postpone again was made as Austria went into its fourth national COVID lockdown Monday, after the number of coronavirus-related deaths tripled in just the past few weeks. The new measures will last until Dec. 12 but could be extended if numbers don’t improve.

In addition, the Austrian government also declared that as of Feb. 1, vaccination against COVID-19 will be obligatory. So far, just 66 percent of Austria’s population of 8.9 million are vaccinated, making it one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe.

Citizens are required to stay inside their homes apart from certain essential reasons, including work, sports that are not inside of a stadium, such as skiing, and grocery shopping. Skiers will be allowed to use lifts to get to the top of slopes, but only if they have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID.

Many restaurants are getting by doing take-away orders, and citizens who do go out in public are required to wear the special FFP2 face mask. Schools will remain open, although parents have been asked to keep their children at home if possible.

This new national lockdown for Austria comes just one week after they imposed a similar partial lockdown for just the unvaccinated, who were barred from attending many public events and activities, such as indoor dining, and cultural activities.

In tandem with the national lockdown, Austria’s bishops have also announced new restrictions on Mass attendance and the administration of the sacraments.

While no one is banned from attending Mass, bishops said they will follow government measures, requiring faithful who attend liturgical services to wear the FFP2 face mask at both indoor and outdoor Masses, where faithful will be socially distanced.

Priests and other liturgical ministers are required to show proof of either vaccination, recovery from COVID-19, or a negative COVID test. Choirs will not be allowed during Masses, but up to four cantors will be permitted provided they can show proof of vaccination or recovery from COVID.

In his remarks, Lackner said he is concerned about polarization over the lockdown and vaccine requirements, which was particularly palpable during protests that happened over the weekend.

“Because the pandemic affects everyone, everyone must take on responsibility for it for yourself and others,” he said, urging citizens to “stay balanced, despite all irritation, let us help each other and act so that we can look each other in the eye after the pandemic.”

“With this in mind, we bishops consciously invite the faithful, indeed the entire population, to use the lockdown time for moments of silence, thoughtfulness, and prayer,” he said.

A new date for the ad limina has not been set, but Lackner said the Vatican wants to schedule it for some time next year.

Lackner said he was “very grateful” for the Vatican’s swift response to their request to postpone, and hopes the 2022 visit, if it happens, will not be “overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn backed the request to postpone the ad limina, saying in a brief message on Twitter that “In the current stressful situation it is necessary to stand together, keep talking to one another and maintain what connects us. That can only be done together.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen