Catholic epidemiologist offers protocol for opening churches

ROME ( – Stunned by a backlash from Italy’s bishops, leftwing premier Giuseppe Conte will consider reopening churches for Sunday Masses from May 25.

The state will first allow outdoor Masses from May 11, followed by weekday liturgies from May 18, the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI) news website Avvenire revealed, citing government sources.

While announcing that the bishops’ victory was a result of “two days of authentic confrontation” with the prime minister and the government, CEI undersecretary Fr. Ivan Maffeis downplayed media reports of Pope Francis toeing the state’s line and adopting a position at odds with the bishops.

“The Holy Father’s call was like the caution of a father who says ‘be careful we are not out of the tunnel,'” Maffeis explained. 

On Tuesday, Pope Francis came under fire in the Italian media for calling Catholics to display “prudence and obedience” to the quarantine regulations, “so that the pandemic does not return.” 

Maffeis acknowledged, however, that “the relationship with the government has experienced moments of tension, especially in the last few days, which led to a statement with very harsh tones such as the one CEI published on Sunday evening.” 

Speaking to Church Militant, leading Italian Catholic epidemiologist, Dr. Paolo Gulisano, said he found it “strange that a pope would ask Catholics to obey the rules of a government that takes away freedom of worship.” 

“In the past, other popes have called for disobedience to tyrants and to unjust laws. The Church has always called for opposition to abortion legislation,” the former professor of History of Medicine at the University of Milan-Bicocca noted. “Moreover, on certain recent occasions, the pope seems to have invited citizens to disobey governments he does not like, particularly in the case of illegal immigration.”

Gulisano, a specialist in hygiene and preventive medicine, has submitted a medical protocol to the CEI which will enable churches to reopen safely for public worship.

The protocol, he told Church Militant, could be adopted in Italy, as well as in other countries.

“The scientific evidence from the countries affected by the epidemic informs us that the most effective measures against the COVID-19 virus involve the cleaning and disinfection of environments and maintaining a safe distance between people,” Dr. Gulisano observes in his protocol.

The epidemiologist outlines measures such as decreasing the number of faithful while increasing the number of Masses; multiple access points for entry and exit; maintaining a distance of one meter; sanitizing church seating and furnishings with chlorine sanitizing detergents or alcohol-based disinfectants or bleach and refraining from exchanging the sign of peace.  

Faithful only need to wear gloves and not masks as part of their personal protective equipment, as scientific literature and epidemiological evidence attest that the hands are the main means of contagion, he says, adding: “The use of gloves makes any use of disinfectant dispensers unnecessary, which will instead be used by the celebrant before the start of the function.”

To receive Communion, the faithful must arrange themselves in a single row, keeping one meter apart and Communion must not be received on the hands, not even on glove-protected hands, but only in the mouth, only under the species of bread and only by the celebrant who will have already disinfected his hands before the celebration, and will have further washed his hands during the liturgical rituals, he elaborates.

At the end of the Mass, the faithful must leave the church respecting social distancing measures, without creating gatherings, he writes.

Dr. Gulisano is also calling for confessions to resume with a distance of one meter between the penitent and the confessor and small plexiglass bulkheads to be installed if there is no grate on the confessional. Confessionals must be sanitized at the end of the confession.

However, Dr. Massimo Galli, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Sacco hospital in Milan, is warning the government not to allow the churches to reopen in May as it would result in further spread of the virus.

“Mass is not such a priority” Galli, an atheist and a member of the government’s Technical Scientific Committee overseeing the quarantine restrictions, said, dismissing the Mass-going population as an elderly minority and pointing out that the pope himself had called for prudence.

Meanwhile, in addition to protests from the bishops, a number of politicians in Italy’s coalition government are calling for churches to reopen.

“I cannot remain silent in the face of the incomprehensible decision not to grant the possibility of celebrating religious services,” said Elena Bonetti, minister for family and equal opportunities. “It is up to politicians to protect the country’s integral well-being, and religious freedom is one of our fundamental freedoms.”

Jules Gomes

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