“Welcome back after a long time,” Rev. Massimo Brogi told the faithful at the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina. “It’s good to see you again after so far.”
Italian Catholics, who emerged from one of the most rigid lockouts in the West – who stopped historic at religious ceremonies – returned to Mass on Sunday, praying as usual, while trying to understand the long list of new rules.
Priests throughout the country filled their homilies with references in the past three months: more than 30,000 have died corona virus, the journey of so many people without a funeral, economic suffering.
But that day is a trial for all the ways in which religious services will look different, perhaps over the coming months, in one of the most Catholic countries in the world.
In the Brogi church, only a few blocks from the Vatican, there are no prayer leaflets, no choir. Pew is spaced 5 ½ feet apart. When it was time to pray, Brogi told the parishioners to speak firmly, “because the mask will muffle your voice.”
Throughout Rome, church bells rang all morning. People are allowed to attend Mass directly since Monday, but for many, Sunday is their first time back. At the Vatican, Pope Francis still held Mass in private – a program that was broadcast live – but he then appeared in a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square to wave and bless the droplets of people in the piazza.
The eight-week locking in Italy that has almost stopped has all helped slow the spread of the virus. But even for people who go to and from church on Sundays, there are indications everywhere that things are far from normal. In Rome, restaurants and shops that depend on tourists are still closed, with signs on several requests for help from the Italian government. A broad and lined road under a pole leading to St. Peter’s – designed by Mussolini’s orders – continued to lose ordinary religious pilgrims. Conversely, only a few people jog or walk around.
The Brogi Church is on that road. Quiet prayer, for change, does not have a background in traffic noise or tourists.
Italy, like many European countries, has begun to allow businesses, restaurants and shops to reopen. But the government sparked tensions with the bishops’ national conference when initial plan to relax restrictions not including schedules for the church. Italian bishops and the government reached an agreement two weeks ago outlining conditions under which the church could be reopened.
Among the rules: reduced capacity in church buildings, social distance on church benches, no holy water, masks for everyone.
Brogi said he had not seen parishioners reject the rule.
“Some have really gone beyond what is needed, even further on the safe side,” he said before Mass, as some people walked wearing surgical gloves.
The priest may still hear confession, but not in the cubicle.
“Always with a mask,” said the Reverend Carlo Grosso, another priest in Santa Maria in Transpontina. “When they confessed, I told them to lower their masks a little so I could hear. Recognition outside the booth still has its own value. “But speaking out in the open, said Grosso, people don’t feel” protected. “
Near the end of the Mass on Sunday, the parishioners noticed one other thing that had changed: Holy Communion. For Catholics, this means taking the wafer, converted during the Mass to the body of Jesus – placed by the priest in the hands of the parishioners or on his tongue. In the midst of the epidemic, Brogi explained, the last method was no longer an option. Wafers will only be placed in the hand. Before he and other priests went around distributing wafers, he explained that he carefully followed the rules.
“As you can see, we clean our hands,” he said.
Then he moved past the bench. Some people are not sure about the protocol. Over and over, Brogi stopped next to the congregation and helped them. Yes, he said, it’s okay to remove your mask for a moment. No, you don’t have to receive Communion when wearing gloves.
After the service was over, people walked out, some headed for lunch or walked home, others walked to the Vatican for crowd-free walks. Leonardo Di Pompeo, 30, said he and his girlfriend were out for the first time since the pandemic struck. He said they felt safe in the church – even after weeks of watching Mass broadcast live on the Internet.
“This is not a very risky place,” said his girlfriend, Miriana Guarino, 27. “Not like a restaurant. In a restaurant, you want to socialize. At church, you can be alone with your prayers regarding the priest. “
Although they lived together, Guarino and Di Pompeo sat at the opposite end of the bench, like the other couple. Brogi said it was important that even family members did not sit side by side, to signify the church as a place where rules were uniformly obeyed.
“This is a time when people look around to see what other people are doing,” Guarino said. “So, we try to make people happy and comfortable.”
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