15 March 2020, The Tablet

Pope Francis urges Catholics to unite in spiritual communion

by Christopher Lamb , Tom Heneghan , Christa Pongratz-Lippitt , Jonathan Luxmoore, James Roberts

Pope Francis walked through Rome's deserted streets to pray for an end to the coronavirus on Sunday as the Vatican said its Easter services will be held without the public for the first time.

Francis left the Vatican unannounced on 15 March to pray at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then walked along the empty Via del Corso, one of Rome’s main streets, to visit the church of San Marcello al Corso.  Before a wooden crucifix said to have protected Rome from a great plague in 1522, the Pope prayed for an end to the pandemic and for the sick, their families and health providers as well as for the workers in pharmacies and food stores - the only venues allowed to stay open amid Italy’s national lockdown.

With so many Catholics unable to attend Mass, because of the restrictions on public celebration of the liturgy, Pope Francis on Sunday recalled the Church’s spiritual communion as the Body of Christ, united in prayer. Spiritual communion in the Eucharist was “a highly recommended practice when it is not possible to receive the sacrament,” he said.

He praised the Archbishop of Milan, Mario Enrico Delpini. “The Archbishop is close to his people and also close to God in prayer. I am reminded of last week’s photograph: he alone on the roof of the Duomo praying to the Madonna. I would also like to thank all the priests, the creativity of the priests.”

A Catholic priest died in Italy on Saturday from coronavirus, with local Italian media on Sunday reporting the death of several others. Mgr Vincenzo Rini was a priest of the Diocese of Cremona, close to Milan and near Italy’s epicentre of the pandemic. The country has seen more than 1,200 deaths.

A ruling closing all of Rome’s Churches was reversed on Friday, allowing for places of worship to open as long they do not put people at risk of catching the coronavirus. On Thursday Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, took the unprecedented decision to close the 900 churches throughout the City until at least 3 April, but he ruled on Friday that priests can open churches provided they take special care to limit contact between people. His change of tack followed Pope Francis saying on Friday that “drastic measures…are not always good” during his early morning live-streamed Mass, when he prayed that “the Holy Spirit might grant pastoral discernment to pastors so that they might perceive measures that might not leave the holy, faithful people of God alone.”

The French bishops’ conference has called off all public Sunday and weekday Masses indefinitely. From 16 March, there could not be any baptisms or weddings, although funerals could take place with fewer than 100 participants. The conference has also put off indefinitely its spring plenary session scheduled for 31 March to 3 April in Lourdes. The Marian sanctuary has also called off all public Masses. Several pilgrimages have also been cancelled but the sanctuary itself is not closed. It has organised a novena from 17 to 25 March to pray “for the world”, its rector Mgr Olivier Ribadeau-Dumas told La Vie magazine.

Some French bishops went to Rome for a first ad limina visit, which began on 9 March and was called short on 11 March. Two further sections of the French episcopate had to suspend planned visits to Rome. One of the bishops on the first visit, Emmanuel Delmas of Angers, tested positive for coronavirus and one-third of the French episcopate is now in isolation.

The Belgian bishops’ conference issued a statement on Thursday last week calling off all public Masses until at least 3 April. Masses in private, for example in monasteries, were still allowed. Baptisms, weddings and funerals could take place with a small number of participants. Churches are to stay open for prayer and personal meditation. 

The Dutch bishops’ conference has called off all public weekend Masses until 31 March. In all three countries, the bishops reminded the faithful they can follow Mass live on Catholic media.

Spain, the worst-affected European nation after Italy, has seen more than 130 deaths. The Spanish government declared a state of emergency on 13 March, days after cases jumped to 4,200. The Spanish bishops have cancelled Holy Week parades.

In Poland, where all schools and universities were closed last week, the 151-member Bishops’ Conference called off its planned 12-13 March plenary, while its president, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, urged Catholics to use a special dispensation to stay away from Sunday Mass and watch or listen to services on TV or the radio instead.

Similar advice was issued to Catholics in Lithuania and Slovakia. Slovakia’s Catholic Church said the Sacrament of Reconciliation should only be administered when transparent film had been fixed across confessional grilles. 

Greece’s Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches instructed churchgoers to desist from the practice of kissing doorway icons, while the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic and Hungary said an upper limit of 100 was being imposed until further notice on Mass attendance.    

In some dioceses in Germany all Masses have been suspended, in others Mass was still celebrated as of Monday this week but the numbers have been restricted to 100 or 50 people. 

Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, who is in quarantine though without symptoms after being in proximity to an infected person, is one of several bishops in the German-speaking countries who has recommended Eucharistic fasting while the epidemic lasts.

In Regensburg, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer has also ordered plastic or textile curtains to be installed between the priest and the penitent during Confession.

The Austrian bishops’ conference’s plenary, which was to have been held from 16-19 March, has been cancelled at the last minute. Cardinal Schönborn was to officially announce his resignation as conference president and a new president would then have been elected. As it is, Schönborn will remain president for the time being. 

By Sunday 15 March most Masses attended by the faithful had been suspended nationwide. Reducing physical social contacts to a minimum was not unchristian but an act of Christian love, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn underlined in his video appeal to all Austrians to obey the government’s radical measures, which were “absolutely necessary and responsible” in order to have enough hospital beds available and prevent the health system from collapsing as in northern Italy”. He also recommended “the old custom of spiritual Communion”, praying “for instance for the sick and for the many who are now worried that they may lose their jobs.”  The auxiliary Bishop of Chur in German-speaking Switzerland, Marian Eleganti, said in a video that the corona virus was “God’s punishment” for a faithless world. He was immediately sharply criticised by his Swiss colleagues.

In a Vatican Radio interview on Monday, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who heads the Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences (COMECE), accused France, Germany and other EU countries of “thinking only about their national interests” and showing a “lack solidarity” in closing their borders. In a statement the same day, the Cardinal’s Luxembourg archdiocese, where restaurants, cinemas and libraries are closed, said he himself was now in “home quarantine” after a staff member had tested positive for the virus.

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