ROME – Pope Francis gave a shout-out Sunday to priests finding “creative” ways to support and be with their people as Italy’s COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown continues, and also praised ordinary Italian workers in grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as police, delivering essential services amid the crisis.

“I want to pray for all of the priests, the creativity of priests,” the pope said in his March 15 Angelus address, saying he has heard numerous stories of priests in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, which is the center of the country’s COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, “who think of a thousand ways to be with the people so that the people don’t feel alone.”

These are “priests with apostolic zeal who understand that in times of pandemic, you shouldn’t be Don Abbondio,” he said, referring to a literary figure in a popular Italian novel.

Known for his role in celebrated Italian romance novel, I promessi sposi by Alessandro Manzoni, Don Abbondio’s character is found to be hesitant and cowardly, running from the difficulties and obstacles he meets rather than facing them.

On Friday, after the Diocese of Rome reversed its decision a day earlier to close all churches in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus, a letter signed by the pope’s personal secretary, but which is believed to have been written by him, was sent to priests urging them to bring the sacraments to those who ask amid Italy’s strict lockdown.

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“In the epidemic of fear that we are all living due to the coronavirus pandemic, we risk behaving more like wage-earners than as pastors,” he said in the letter, pondering aloud how many people “will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need.”

As the whole of Italy remains in a strict lockdown with only supermarkets, newsstands, tobacco shops and pharmacies open, the national number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. As of Saturday evening there were a total of 21,157 cases with 1,441 deaths and 1,966 who have been cured.

“In this situation of epidemic, in which we find ourselves more or less isolated, we are invited to rediscover and deepen in the value of the communion which unites all members of the Church,” the pope said in his Sunday Angelus address.

“United to Christ we are never alone, but we form one body, of which he is the head,” he said, explaining that this unity is fed both by prayer and so-called spiritual communion of the Eucharist, which is an act of prayer made with Catholics are not able to take Communion physically.

Francis again assured of his closeness to all those who are sick, their caregivers, and the healthcare workers and volunteers who “help people who cannot leave home, and those who attend to the needs of the poorest and homeless.”

During his Sunday Mass in the chapel of the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse where he lives, Pope Francis offered specific prayers for the sick and suffering, and for employees in fields that “guarantee society functions” amid the lockdown, including the police and those who work in public transport, pharmacies and supermarkets.

The pope’s daily Masses, which are usually open to a select number of people, are currently private but are being livestreamed due to the coronavirus.

In his homily Sunday, Francis stressed the need for transparency in one’s relationship with God, saying God prefers to dialogue based on simple truth without “double-intent.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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