[Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of the story to reflect comments by Pope Francis’s personal secretary to Crux.]

ROME – Shortly after the Diocese of Rome reversed its decision Friday to close all churches in a bid to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, a personal secretary to Pope Francis sent a message to priest friends urging them to go out and bring faithful the sacraments, voicing fear that some might leave the Church due to its failure to be there for people in a time of need.

“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,” Father Yoannis Lahzi Gaid said in a letter dated March 13.

“I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need,” he said, adding, “May it never be said: “I won’t go to a church that didn’t come to me when I was in need.”

Though taken by many Roman priests as written by the pope himself, Gaid told Crux Sunday that he was the author of the note, it was sent to a few priest friends using WhatsApp, and that it was not read or approved by Pope Francis in advance.

Signed by Gaid, the message recounts an early Christian tradition of Peter leaving Rome under Nero’s persecution. According to the account, as Peter was leaving, he saw Jesus walking toward the city, and when he asked Jesus where he was going, Jesus responded that he was going to Rome to be crucified again. The response prompted Peter to return to Rome, where he was martyred.

“Peter, humanely speaking, had every right to flee to save his life from persecution and to perhaps establish other communities and other churches,” Gaid said, “but in reality, he acted according to the logic of the world, like Satan; that is, thinking like men and not as God does.”

In light of government measures imposing heavy fines for violation of its lockdown, “We cannot and must not judge” those who decide not to go out, he said, but stressed the image of Christ “who meets a Peter full of fear and fleeing not to rebuke him, but to go and die in his place.”

“We think of all the souls who are fearful and left alone because we pastors follow civil instructions – which is right and clearly necessary in this moment to avoid contagion,” he said, but cautioned that in doing so, priests risk “putting aside divine instructions – which is a sin.”

“We are thinking like men and not like God. We are among the fearful and not among the doctors, nurses, volunteers, workers and fathers of families who are on the front lines,” he said.

Turning his focus to the faithful, Gaid said his thoughts go out to those need comfort and wish to go to confession but cannot; to people who are able to receive communion, believing it is Christ himself they are receiving, and of those “who now must be content following the Mass through streaming.”

Priests, he said, must be on “the front line,” and must be available when their people are looking for a source of comfort and courage as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“They must know that they can run at any moment and take refuge in their churches and parishes and find them open and welcoming,” the pope said, insisting that the Church must be the “toll-free number” that anyone can call “to be comforted, to ask for confession, to receive communion; or to ask for it for their loved ones.”

Gaid urged priests not to stay as “spectators” as the pandemic continues, but to increase their visits to individual homes, while taking all the necessary precautions to avoid contagion.

“Otherwise pastas and pizzas will be delivered to houses but not communion for those who want it because they are elderly, sick or in need. Supermarkets, newspaper shops and tobacco shops will be open, but not the churches,” he said, noting that the government has a duty to guarantee the health and material support of the people, “but we have the duty to do the same for souls.”

“Let us apply all the necessary measures but not let ourselves be conditioned by fear,” he said, inviting priests to pray “for the grace and courage to act according to God and not according to men!”

Gaid’s message came after the Diocese of Rome made a quick about-face on a decision to close all churches, whether in use as a parish or not. After decreeing March 12 that all churches in Rome would be closed, a day later the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, reversed that decision, saying the back-track came out of a meeting with the pope.

De Donatis permitted parochial churches to remain open, and placed the decision whether to go up to the “mature consciences” of the faithful.

RELATED: Rome reopens churches after pope cautions against taking ‘drastic measures’

Since March 8, all public Masses in Rome have been suspended in a bid to prevent transmission of the disease. The decision of whether to keep parishes open now lay in the hands of individual pastors. In one of his first televised daily Masses after the suspension, Pope Francis urged priests to have the courage to “go out” and offer people the sacraments.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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