ROME – As the number climbs of inmates who’ve died in Italian prisons amid riots related to the country’s coronavirus restrictions, and as the Vatican tightens its own controls, Pope Francis Wednesday offered a prayer for prisoners suffering as the disease spreads.
“Let’s continue to pray for those sick because of this epidemic, and, in a special way, I’d like to pray for prisoners, our brothers and sisters enclosed in prison,” the pope said during his March 11 daily Mass inside the chapel of the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse where he lives.
“They’re suffering, and we have to be close to them in prayer that the Lord will help and console them in this difficult moment,” he said.
Francis also offered a shout-out to persecuted Christians, making specific mention of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother who was freed last year after being imprisoned for nine years on charges of blasphemy.
Since the coronavirus broke out in Italy, authorities have been clamping down on public activity, issuing tough restrictions that have also impacted prisons, causing a string of riots.
On Tuesday, Italy announced five more deaths amid prison riots due to new restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of fatalities to 12. The Italian justice ministry blamed the deaths on drug overdoses that occurred after prisoners broke into medical storage rooms.
Jails have been ordered to stop visits and limit day releases as part of a broad government response to the COVID-19 virus, prompting uprisings and violence in at least 23 Italian prisons, including some in Rome.
Some inmates have demanded to be tested for the virus, and to have their privileges restored if the results are negative, while others have requested amnesty on the grounds that prisons are a breeding ground for infection.
Officials say the protests have been brought under control in all but one prison, the Sicilian facility of Trapani, where a small group of inmates remained encamped on the roof.
The Italian health ministry announced Tuesday evening that the total number of cases in the country has reached 10,149, with 631 deaths and 724 recoveries.
After shutting down all museums, cinemas, schools, universities, gyms and pools last week, as well as ordering pubs, restaurants and bars to close after 6:00 p.m., Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reportedly was considering even more drastic measures Wednesday morning, including closing all stores and offices with the lone exceptions of grocery stores and pharmacies – beginning with the “red zones” in northern Italy, but potentially extending to the entire country.
On March 10 the Vatican announced that in collaboration with Italian authorities, it was also tightening restrictions in order to avoid further spread of the COVID-19 virus.
As part of these measures, St. Peter’s Basilica is now closed to guided visits and tourists until April 3. Faithful who wish to pray may enter the basilica, however, Italian police are questioning those who wish to enter, barring anyone who doesn’t have what they deem legitimate reasons for work.
Despite being a part of the Vatican City State, St. Peter’s Square under the 1929 Lateran Treaty is subject to the authority of Italian police for crowd control, unless the pope is present.
The Vatican supermarket and pharmacy will remain open with limited visits, the statement said. Yet as a precaution the mobile unit of the Vatican Post Office in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican Publishing House, and the photo service of the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which is still accessible online, will all be closed until at least April 3.
A cafeteria used by Vatican employees will also be closed, but will offer delivery services to various Vatican offices and departments upon request.
On March 10 the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which manages the Vatican’s real estate holdings, and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which owns many of the buildings the Vatican rents out, issued a joint statement saying they are taking requests “for a temporary reduction of commercial lease payments.”
The decision, they said, was made due to “the situations of particular economic suffering” that many are enduring due to restrictions enforced by Italian authorities.
Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, organized a large public Mass on March 11, which he designated as a day of prayer and fasting for the end of the coronavirus outbreak. However, since all public Masses have now been suspended until April 3, the Vatican announced Tuesday that it will be celebrated privately, and that Pope Francis will send a video message offering prayers to Mary.
During yesterday’s daily Mass in the Saint Martha guesthouse, Francis prayed that priests in Italy would “have the courage to go out and go to the sick,” bringing them both the Word of God and communion. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni later said the pope had issued that appeal “clearly with respect for the sanitary measures established by the Italian authorities.”
At the end of his general audience Wednesday, during which he sat in a semi-circle next to those reading the day’s Gospel and audience summaries in different languages – each seat a meter apart – the pope gave another shout-out to those who are sick and to healthcare workers.
“I thank from my heart hospital personnel, doctors, nurses, volunteers. In this very difficult moment, they are at the side of those who suffer,” he said, and voiced gratitude to “all Christians, all men and women of goodwill who are praying for this moment, all united, whatever religious tradition they belong to. Thanks from the heart, for this effort.”
Francis also urged the world not to forget the suffering of the Syrian people amid the coronavirus scare, saying Syrians are people “who are suffering for years. They must flee war, hunger and sickness. Let’s not forget our brothers and sisters, and the many children who are suffering there.”
He closed his audience, which offered a reflection on the Beatitudes, thanking inmates at the Carcere Due Palazzi prison in Padua for writing the text of the meditations he will use during his Good Friday Via Crucis.
Saying he received the mediations Tuesday, Pope Francis thanked the inmates “for working altogether, the whole prison community,” and for “the depth of your meditations.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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