ROME – After the Vatican acknowledged its first case of coronavirus the day before, officials announced Saturday that major papal events typically open to the public, including the Sunday Angelus and Wednesday general audience, will be closed for at least the next week.
According to a March 7 statement from the Vatican press office, Pope Francis’s March 8 Sunday Angelus address and his March 11 general audience will be filmed and streamed from the library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace, rather than in St. Peter’s Square.
However, both events will be displayed on giant maxi-screens in the square for any pilgrims who wish to come and watch.
“These decisions were deemed necessary to avoid the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus due to the assemblies during security checks required to access the square, as is requested by Italian authorities,” the statement said.
In compliance with provisions from the Vatican’s Department for Health and Hygiene, the Vatican has also barred faithful from participating in the pope’s daily Masses in the chapel of the Vatican’s Saint Marta guesthouse, where the pope resides, until March 15.
Rather, “the Holy Father will celebrate the Eucharist privately,” it said.
The announcement was made the day after the Vatican identified a patient diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus in an outpatient facility run by its Directorate of Health and Hygiene, which suspended its activities in order to sanitize the building.
On Friday the Pontifical Academy for life also announced that a participant in its recent conference on artificial intelligence had been diagnosed with COVID-19. However, it is unknown if this is the same person who tested positive in the Vatican’s outpatient facility.
Pope Francis himself has been suffering from a cold unrelated to the coronavirus for more than a week, curtailing many of his normal activities. Also this week, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, felt ill during a Lenten spiritual retreat for members of the Roman Curia in Ariccia, about an hour from the Vatican, and returned to Rome. However, an aide said the illness was not serious, and that Paglia is already back on the job.
As of Friday evening, the number of identified cases of coronavirus in Italy had risen to 3,916. Of these, 197 have died and 523 have recovered. The vast majority of these cases, some 2,612, are in Italy’s northern Lombardy region. Most of those infected are either receiving treatment or they are in home isolation.
Earlier this week Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a series of preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus, including closing universities and schools until March 15, though the measures are expected to extend to early April. Sporting events are now being played behind closed doors, and citizens have been asked to stand three feet apart when in public.
Italy remains at a level three travel warning with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which cautions against unnecessary travel, meaning that for the moment, the normally bustling streets in Rome are uncharacteristically quiet as most tour groups have cancelled their trips.
Concerns over exposure to the coronavirus have also impacted the Catholic Church in Italy. Parishes have emptied holy water fonts, the sign of peace is skipped during Masses, and faithful are encouraged to receive communion in their hands, rather than on the tongue.
The Diocese of Rome recently announced the suspension of all non-liturgical activities such as catechesis, marriage preparation and youth ministry.
Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the vicar of Rome, announced on Friday that this upcoming Wednesday, March 11, will be a day of prayer and fasting for the end of the coronavirus outbreak, urging Christians to give up one meal and to perform acts of charity.
He will also celebrate Mass at 7p.m. local time at the Shrine of Divine Love, which will be televised and live streamed on Italian station Telepace, as well as the diocese’s Facebook page.
Writing from Ariccia, where the Roman Curia has been on a week-long spiritual retreat, De Donatis said he is inviting Christians everywhere to join in the prayer and fasting, “to invoke help from God for our city, for Italy and for the world.”
“We will pray for those who are infected and for those who care for them, and for our communities, so that they may be witnesses of faith and hope at this moment,” he said, adding that the diocese will be using money given in collections at Masses to support healthcare personnel.
Other Vatican departments have also weighed in, including the office for Laity, Family and Life, which sent a message to families Friday assuring them that despite the difficulty of the moment, “we shouldn’t feel alone in front of this enemy.”
As the outbreak continues, they said, each person must face the crisis “with seriousness, serenity and courage, making ourselves available to make some sacrifices in our daily lifestyle for the sake of the common good: our good, and the good of all.”