ROME – In Catholic terms, perhaps nothing captures the “through the looking glass” dynamic of the coronavirus pandemic like this: Up and down Italy over Easter weekend, police entered churches and broke up services judged to be in violation of a national quarantine, issuing citations and fines to those taking part, in several instances including the parish priest.
Yet not only has there been no howl of protest from the country’s Catholic leadership, almost uniformly bishops have sided with the authorities.
“We have to be realistic,” said Archbishop Corrado Lorefice of Palermo in Sicily. “COVID-19 is transmitted where people meet. We have to be the first to do whatever we can to prevent this epidemic from expanding.”
“Renouncing the usual celebrations isn’t about abandoning the faith, it’s the fruit of a Christian awareness that we’re part of a civil community, we’re the sons and daughters of a nation and a state, and we’re making a responsible choice to collaborate with authorities in the struggle against the virus,” he said.
Under any other circumstances, such police conduct in Italy – where even avowed atheists and mob bosses generally show up at Easter Sunday Mass, if for no other reason than as a nod to tradition – would be unthinkable. The fact that it not only happened, but that Church authorities tacitly tolerated it, is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of how much the pandemic has turned ordinary patterns inside out.
Here’s a rundown of incidents that unfolded over the Easter weekend, as Italy prepares to mark the fortieth day of its nationwide lockdown this Friday, and where public celebration of the Mass and other sacraments has been suspended for the same span:
- In San Marco in Lamis in the southern Italian region of Puglia, a Good Friday service was held in front of the Church of the Sorrowful Mother that attracted roughly 100 worshippers. Social media images of the gathering, which included the small town’s mayor, led police to intervene and issue fines.
- In Supersano, also located in Puglia, another a Good Friday service was staged outside a local church, with participants wearing facemasks and gloves. Italy’s military police, the carabinieri, nonetheless issued fines to 13 participants, including Father Oronzo Cosi, the pastor.
- In Formia in the Lazio region of central Italy, centered in Rome, an Easter Mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd in which roughly 10 participants were not wearing protective gear was filmed on a smartphone and sent to a popular Italian TV show. The priest who led the Mass then denounced himself to local police and was fined roughly $440.
- In Scafati in the province of Salerno just south of Naples, an Easter vigil Mass at the Church of St. Mary of the Virgins with roughly 40 participants was interrupted by police and fines issued. The participants were also ordered to self-isolate for a period of two weeks.
- In Pescara, located on central Italy’s Adriatic coast, an Easter Mass at the parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary with 14 participants, including the pastor, was broken up by police after anonymous calls to the Italian equivalent of “911”, and fines were issued.
- In Palermo in Sicily on Good Friday, police broke up a prayer service outside the Church of the Most Holy Mary of Lourdes involving two large statues of saints, a cross, and a powerful sound system. The service had been organized by a lay confraternity based at the parish, and participants were issued fines.
- In the small town of San Vittore in the Lazio region, a “Via Crucis” procession took place through the center of town on Good Friday. Police interrupted the gathering and issued fines to roughly a dozen participants.
- In Rivarolo Canavese, a small town in northern Italy near Turin, the pastor of the parish Church of St. James was issued a fine for holding an Easter Mass in the presence of the faithful.
- In Narbolia on the southern island of Sardinia, four women who are parishioners were fined for serving an Easter Mass celebrated by the local pastor, taking the roles normally played by altar boys and girls. According to local media, one of the women was a 92-year-old grandmother who told police she’d gone to church to pray for the dead due to the coronavirus and has no intention of paying the $440 fine.
- In Rome outside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, several members of the far-right political faction Forza Nuova were fined for gathering for prayer on Easter Sunday. A leader of the group said they’d deliberately defied the lockdown in order to “reconquer … the church of the Romans, where our citizens gather in moments of war and in our darkest times.”
To be clear, there was no specific clampdown on churches. Overall, the Italian government announced that police had carried out more than 270,000 spot checks over the Easter weekend and issued almost 14,000 fines, amid fears that good weather and frustration with being cooped up indoors might induce people to defy pandemic restrictions, which authorities warn could lead to a new round of contagion.
Among other instances, a Roman woman was cited over the weekend for violating the quarantine when, during a random spot check, she informed police she had left home to walk her pet turtle. The explanation was found unconvincing, and she was issued the same $440 fine as those taking part in unauthorized religious gatherings.
Critics have argued that by accepting such restrictions, the Church risks making itself marginal. Lorefice, however, sees an upside.
“Marginality, in some respects, is constitutive of the identity of the Church, even if sometimes we’re still nostalgic for Christendom,” he said.
“The more the Church is aware of its ‘marginal’ identity, the more capable it is, in reality, of transmitting the message of the Gospel,” the 57-year-old prelate said. “Think about the image of Pope Francis, standing alone in the square we’re used to seeing full, which was emblematic of the simplicity of a gospel which, today, people await not as emotional consolation, but a word of salvation.”
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.