ROME – A bishop in the southern Italian region of Campania is making waves for his recent decision to ban priests, religious, and lay people who have not been vaccinated from distributing communion at Mass in a bid to curb Italy’s rising infection rate.

Bishop Giacomo Cirulli, who leads the Dioceses of Teano-Calvi and Alife-Caiazzo, in the Italian region of Campania, which has had 11,815 new COVID cases and five new COVID-related deaths in past 24 hours, issued a decree announcing the ban earlier this week.

In the Jan. 8 decree, Cirulli said the status of the pandemic “is constantly and seriously worsening,” and invited the faithful under his pastoral direction to “respect and strictly enforce prophylaxis and the sanitation norms for the containment of the pandemic within our churches and in the relevant premises.”

Specifically, he urged faithful to obey the rules of a May 7, 2020, Memorandum of Understanding between the Italian government and CEI on the resumption of liturgical celebrations, which bans the use of holy water and the reception of communion on the tongue, requires Mass attendees to maintain at least three feet of distance, use hand sanitizer, and to wear face masks.

Cirulli asked Mass-goers to “to strictly respect the distance and therefore the number of admissions into the liturgical hall” in the days and weeks to come.

He also announced his decision to “prohibit the distribution of the Eucharist by priests, deacons, religious, and lay people who are not vaccinated,” and insisted that hosts used during Masses be strictly and securely covered.

All in-person catechetical and pastoral activities were suspended in the dioceses as of Jan. 9.

In his decree, Cirulli quoted a remark from Pope Francis saying that to get vaccinated “is an act of love. And helping to get most people vaccinated is an act of love. Love for oneself, love for family and friends, love for all people.”

“I invite you to continuous prayer so that the Lord will help us to live this long period of trial responsibly and conscientiously,” he said, and prayed for all those affected by COVID-19.

Cirulli’s decision to prohibit so-called “no-vax” clergy from distributing communion made headlines throughout the country and was met with fierce backlash by some.

Amid the flurry of media attention surrounding his decision, Cirulli issued a statement Monday saying the decision to ban unvaccinated people from distributing communion “confirms the line of respect and protection of life which in this historical moment calls into question the choices of each individual.”

“It is a further useful measure to counter the spread of the virus among the population and to protect among the most fragile even those who may not enjoy the advantages of vaccination coverage and unfortunately – as the growing number of cases in hospitals throughout Italy testify – suffer the damage of the disease,” he said.

Cirulli noted that many other dioceses in Italy have also suspended in-person pastoral activities, saying his decision on this point is in line with the position of the Italian bishops’ conference and Pope Francis’s own vaccination campaign.

Quoting a line from Pope Francis’s speech to members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See Jan. 10, Cirulli said that “Vaccines are not a magical means of healing, but they certainly represent, in addition to the treatments that need to be developed, the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease.”

In his speech, Pope Francis called for greater political commitment in ensuring equal access to COVID-19 vaccines and criticized division over the issue, which he said is caused by the politicization of the pandemic and the spread of misinformation regarding the vaccines.

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Cirulli’s decision comes amid an ongoing rise in COVID-19 cases in Italy, which as of Jan. 9 recorded an additional 155,659 cases and 157 COVID-related deaths.

The daily death rate of COVID patients in Italy has crept close to 200 in the past week, which is a number not been seen since last year.

In December, Italy’s Technical Scientific Committee evaluating and drafting COVID protocols issued new rules to curb the spread of the highly-contagious Omicron variant, requiring citizens to wear masks at all times in public, with the FFP2 mask specifically required to enter theaters, cinemas, and sporting events.

The mandatory waiting period before getting the third vaccine dose was shortened from five to four months after completing the first vaccine cycle, and as of Feb. 1, 2022, the vaccine Green Pass will only be valid for six months, instead of nine.

Pubs and restaurants stayed open during the holidays but required a third vaccine dose from those who were eligible or negative swab to enter. There is a ban on outdoor events and parties until Jan. 31.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen