‘How’ of going back to Mass may be just as messy as ‘when’

‘How’ of going back to Mass may be just as messy as ‘when’

Mass being celebrated in Venice's Church of the Holy Spirit in Italy prior to the coronavirus pandemic. (Credit: Stock image.)

If early returns are any indication, the way in which the Mass ban is lifted may turn out to be just as controversial, and just as messy, as imposing it in the first place.

News Analysis

ROME – Now that there’s a deal between church and state in Italy for resuming public Masses by the end of the month, perhaps as early as the feast of the Ascension (observed here on Sundays) on May 24 but more likely the feast of Pentecost on May 30, focus is shifting from the “when” to the “how.”

Right now, Italy is getting a preview of coming attractions in the form of funeral Masses, which were permitted to resume on Monday. If early returns are any indication, the way in which the Mass ban is lifted may turn out to be just as controversial, and just as messy, as imposing it in the first place.

On April 26, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree for what Italians call Fase 2, or “Phase 2,” of the coronavirus crisis. While the decree didn’t provide a date for the resumption of Mass, it greenlighted funerals restricted to immediate family.

The failure to address Mass triggered protest from the Italian bishops, but that turned out to be short-lived when Pope Francis used his morning Mass the following Tuesday to call for “prudence and obedience” to government decrees.

RELATED: Pope’s call for ‘obedience’ on Mass restrictions both pastoral and political

Since that time, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, Pope Francis’s appointed president of the Italian bishops’ conference, has emphasized collaboration with the government, announcing May 2 that a deal “in principle” had been struck for Mass to return by the end of the month.

(Bassetti also said that if Mass resumes on May 30, it may include the rite of the blessing of oil that was suppressed during Holy Week.)

Father Ivan Maffeis, spokesman for the Italian bishops, told Crux Wednesday that a protocol for resuming Mass based on “norms of public health” is in the final stages of review by Conte’s technical-scientific committee and should appear soon.

In the meantime, funerals are being celebrated up and down the country, observing strict conditions to avoid a new spike in coronavirus infections:

  • No more than 15 people from immediate family.
  • Everyone must wear masks and gloves and maintain a distance of two meters (generally meaning roughly two people in every other pew.)
  • The priest also is supposed to wear a mask and gloves, especially during distribution of communion. Reception of the Eucharist is in the hand, and the priest must approach people individually.
  • There’s no gathering outside to offer a final farewell, and people are asked to exit the church individually.
  • The church is supposed to be cleaned before and after the ceremony.

At the beginning, Conte’s technical-scientific committee wanted Mass-goers to pass a thermoscan proving their body temperature was below 99.5 before being permitted to enter, but after bishops objected on the basis of the logistical difficulty of installing scanners in all of Italy’s 26,000 Catholic parishes, not to mention people equipped to use them, the requirement was dropped. People are still supposed to stay home if they’re running a fever, have flu-like symptoms or have come into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.

(Part of the problem is that Italy has the largest number of parishes in the world but just the fifth largest Catholic population at 57 million. The three largest Catholic nations, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines, have a combined Catholic population of 360 million but just 21,585 parishes, more than 4,000 less than Italy by itself. In Brazil, there’s one parish for every 15,032 Catholics; in Italy, it’s one for every 2,257.)

Based on early experience, it appears at least three points may prove complicated as things unfold.

First, Bassetti has insisted that the Italian church must act in a unified fashion, without individual parishes or dioceses striking out on their own.

“It would be irresponsible to run ahead because the common good, the good of all, asks us to walk together with all the sister churches of Italy, who are living the pandemic in different conditions,” he said.

Yet already, that sense of coherence is under strain. While funeral Masses inside churches, for instance, are now permitted most places, Bishop Edoardo Cerrato in the far northern Italian diocese of Ivrea has asked his priests to celebrate the funeral rites only at cemeteries in the open air, avoiding the risks of contact and confined spaces inside churches.

It remains to be seen, once public Masses are given the go-ahead, whether individual dioceses will continue to adopt their own protocols. A bishop is authorized to do so under canon law, which assigns no veto power to an episcopal conference – and, if bishops do tweak national guidelines on the fly, whether confusion as to what’s permitted and what isn’t will result.

Second, there’s already grumbling at the grassroots about some of the measures currently in place for funerals, which presumably will become louder when Mass resumes.

At Rome’s Church of San Martino ai Monti, close to the city’s famous Colosseum, a funeral Mass was celebrated Monday for an 85-year-old who’d died of causes unrelated to the coronavirus. The pastor, Father Lucio Maria Zappatore, had printed out 15 tickets in advance and given them to the family, who were asked to supply a list of attendees. Assigned seats were then designated in the church, ensuring the right distances.

Afterwards, an Italian news agency interviewed the widow, who expressed gratitude that a funeral was held at all but complained about restrictions on attendance.

“He deserved better,” she said.

In Cesena, located in northern Italy near the country’s Adriatic coast, an acolyte who took part in a funeral Mass wrote his local diocesan newspaper’s website to grouse about what he’d seen.

“The thing that made me think,” wrote Massimo Pieri, “was, if you’ll excuse the term, an abuse of prudence.”

Among other things, Pieri said the priest wore a mask and gloves throughout the liturgy.

“I think that’s an exaggeration, given that everything he touches during the ceremony is used only by him,” Pieri wrote. “I’d recommend to those making the laws not to exaggerate things.”

Pieri also said that 20-25 people, not just 15, easily could have been admitted to the church while maintaining the necessary distance, proposing among other things that people who “animate” the liturgy – choir members, acolytes, lectors, and so on – not be counted as part of the 15-person ceiling.

“I think we have to trust the seriousness and good sense of pastors and celebrants as well as their collaborators, who are too often ignored,” Pieri wrote.

It’s hard not to imagine that such things will be heard at greater volume, and with greater intensity, when Masses resume on a wider scale.

Third, it’s also possible that in the press to get back to business, parishes may be vulnerable to scams offering “help” in terms of compliance with whatever restrictions are imposed.

Archbishop Antonino Raspanti of Acireale in Sicily, for instance, issued a decree for the celebration of funerals that included provisions for airing out the church after services and clearing any surfaces with which people may have had contact, including pews and seats, “with the appropriate detergents and antiseptic agents.”

Sicily being Sicily, however, Raspanti also felt it necessary to warn against people bearing gifts.

“Proposals by presumed professionals who offer cleaning services are not to be accepted until checking with the administrative office of the curia,” he wrote, referring to archdiocesan headquarters, “as well as that of Sacred Arts and Cultural Goods,” referring to the appropriate government department.

Though he didn’t spell it out, the implication seemed to be that con artists, possibly affiliated with the Sicilian mob, may be sensing an opportunity in crisis.

Summing things up, it may be that getting the greenlight to restart Masses as of a certain date, as complicated as it’s been to reach that point, was actually the easy part of recovery. Navigating the ways and means of hitting the “on” switch may turn out to be even more complicated.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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