ROME – As the Italian government on Thursday rolled out a new set of sweeping restrictions to curb the country’s coronavirus outbreak, the Diocese of Rome issued their own directive announcing the closure of all churches, even for private prayer, until April 3.

“Until Friday, 3 April, 2020, access to parochial and non-parochial churches of the Diocese of Rome, open to the public, and more generally to religious buildings of any kind open to the public, is forbidden to all the faithful,” said a March 12 statement from Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome.

He announced the decision as in step with the latest government measures on the coronavirus and recent statements from the presidency of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Church historian Father Johannes Grohe of Rome’s Santa Croce University, sponsored by Opus Dei, told Crux that this has “never happened before.”

“Up until the 20th century, viruses weren’t understood and when diseases broke out, people gathered to pray in churches, or, for example in Spain, in processions,” Grohe said.

On March 8 the Italian bishops announced the suspension of all public Masses until April 3 as a precautionary measure, however, as the infection rate in Italy continues to climb, new measures are being taken.

Italian authorities announced Thursday night that the total number of cases in the country has risen to 12,462, with the number of deaths at 827 and recoveries at 1,045. In each case, they remain the highest numbers in the world outside China.

Also on Thursday, new restrictions decreed by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte came into effect, with all businesses other than grocery stores, pharmacies and purveyors of other goods deemed essential shut down, along with all restaurants, bars and pubs.

All schools, universities, museums, theaters and cinemas are also closed, and citizens are encouraged to stand at least three feet apart when in public.

In his statement, De Donatis stressed that the decision to close churches is based on regulations from the Italian government and the Italian bishops’ conference.

Citing a previous statement made on March 8, he said, “We are experiencing a very serious health situation,” adding that “Each person, in particular, is asked to have the utmost attention, because any imprudence in observing health measures could harm other people.”

“The decision to close the churches can also be an expression of this responsibility,” he said, insisting that “this is not because the state requires it, but out of a sense of belonging to the human family, exposed to a virus whose nature and propagation we do not yet know.”

According to De Donatis, pastors in charge of individual parishes will be responsible for implementing the order, which includes the closing of worship halls and “any other initiative suitable for that purpose.”

“Let us remember that this provision is for the common good,” he said, and cited Jesus’s words from the Gospel of Matthew when he says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.”

“At this time, even more so, our houses are domestic churches,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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