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The Vatican reopens to the masked and socially distanced faithful

The Vatican has begun allowing public Masses to be celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time since March as coronavirus restrictions were eased in the city-state and in Italy surrounding it.

Guards in hazmat suits took the temperature of the faithful entering the basilica, where Pope Francis celebrated an early morning Mass on Monday for a handful of people to commemorate the centenary of the birth of St. John Paul II.

During another Mass later that day in front of John Paul II’s tomb in the church, Lucina Wodzisz, her husband and two boys wore face masks, but the priest didn’t. And he didn’t use a latex glove when distributing Communion either.

But Wodzisz was thrilled anyway to be able to celebrate the centenary of John Paul’s birth by visiting his tomb. The Polish family is particularly devoted to the former Karol Wojtyla (the eldest Wodzisz son is named Karol) and had only hoped to pray before his tomb on the first day St. Peter’s reopened to the public.

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“We came to be close to the tomb, but we got a Mass!” she marveled. “It’s a great sensation to be back.”

Outside Vatican City, Italy also allowed houses of worship to reopen after a sharp confrontation between church and state over limits on religious services in the era of COVID-19.

Neither its stout walls nor its army of Swiss Guards has been able to stop a modern-day plague of coronavirus from creeping into the Vatican.

Across town in Rome, the Rev. Jose Maria Galvan snapped on a latex glove and face mask before distributing Communion to the dozen parishioners attending early morning Mass on Monday at his Sant’Eugenio parish.

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“Before I became a priest I was a surgeon, so for me gloves are normal,” he joked afterward. “I’m dexterous [with gloves] so the hosts don’t get away from me.”

It was all part of Italy’s next step in emerging from the West’s first coronavirus lockdown, with commercial shops and restaurants reopening and barbers giving long-overdue trims for the first time since March 10.

But with several hundred new infections still being recorded every day, the reopening is hardly a free-for-all, with strict virus-containing measures regulating everything from how you get your coffee to the way you pray.

The government has published 120 pages of detailed norms for the resumption of work, play, worship and commerce, with some of the most intricate protocols reserved for the resumption of public religious observance.

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The fear is that the elderly, among the most religiously devout and also the most at risk for infection, could be exposed to the virus from the resumption of religious services in the onetime European epicenter of the pandemic.

Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Orthodox and Sikhs have their own protocols, with masks required for the faithful and a one-yard distance kept at all times.

The first protocol was inked with Italy’s Roman Catholic bishops after they issued a blistering public critique of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government when it refused to allow public Masses two weeks ago, during the first easing of restrictions.

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The bishops complained that their freedom to worship was being trampled on. Eventually an accord was reached, but it imposes a series of restrictions on access and even the administration of the sacraments. At Sant’Eugenio, for example, the Sunday 11 a.m. Mass usually attracts more than 500 people. Now only 150 can attend. Everyone must wear a face mask and sit a yard apart.

There’s no holy water or choir, and unused pews for the morning Mass were roped off with tape to keep them sanitized for when the bigger crowds come later in the day.

Priests must wear gloves during Communion and “take care to offer the host without coming into contact with the hands of the faithful,” according to the protocol. It goes without saying that the priest doesn’t place the host on the tongue of the faithful, as is the Vatican’s preferred way.

But Pope Francis has made clear he supports the measures, even if he bristled early on at the lockdown and said live-streamed Masses could never be a substitute for the real thing.

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Tradition has had to take a backseat to precaution during the coronavirus crisis. ‘It’s a different form of ministry,’ observes one chaplain.

In his Sunday noon prayer, he welcomed the resumption of communal church celebrations and the reception of sacraments but appealed for caution: “Please, let’s go ahead [with following] the rules and prescriptions we’ve been given to care for the health of each and every one.”

The Vatican has its own post-lockdown reopening norms, and as a sovereign state, it is not bound by the Italian government’s measures. But in some cases it is going beyond them, with the guards bearing scanners in St. Peter’s Square taking the temperatures of anyone who wants to enter the basilica.


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