Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy Challenges Lenten Celebrations

A couple wearing face masks stroll outside St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, on Feb. 27, 2020. Clusters of coronavirus outbreaks in northern Italy have stoked fears throughout Italy and Europe. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As parts of northern Italy are under curfew and quarantined amid growing coronavirus concerns, Catholic priests in the region look for new and creative ways to administer Mass in the days leading up to Lent.

Catholic dioceses from the Italian cities of Milan and Venice have asked their priests not to say Mass and congregate large crowds, as the country became home to the largest coronavirus outbreak in Europe with over 400 people infected and 11 dead.

The Italian bishops have complied with the Italian state by requiring some diocese not to perform the sign of peace and to avoid the use of the holy water font in order to prevent contagion.

Fears of the virus have led priests to consider alternative ways to say Mass, through streaming and personal visits, and to ensure faithful had the opportunity to receive ashes on Wednesday (Feb. 26), an essential element of the celebrations preceding the roughly 40 days of Lent before Easter.

Don Alessio Albertini, from the Diocese of Milan, found himself tasked with convincing the elderly crowd of his usual Sunday Mass that instead of shaking hands and kissing cheeks for the sign of peace they should offer each other a big smile.

“For Christians this is an opportunity for us, who have the chance to go to Mass freely and without fear of terrorists or prohibitions, to reflect on how this is not possible and why we need the Eucharist,” Albertini told Religion News Service in an interview Thursday.

“Now that I cannot go as I always have, then the Mass is no longer just a Sunday habit but something that is fundamental,” he added. “I think this is a strong reflection for Christians this Sunday who for the first time will not be able to live out the Eucharist the way they are used to.”

In the Ambrosian rite of Milan, ashes are administered on Sunday instead of on Ash Wednesday, and Archbishop Mario Delpini will be streaming the Mass online.

Albertini said he has been caught in the race to the supermarkets that has left aisles empty of food and supplies in Milan. He encouraged people not to give in to fear and hysteria and to remember the importance of being together.

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Source: Religion News Service