Less than 24 hours after the Diocese of Rome issued a decree closing all churches to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, officials walked that decision back, saying the about-face came out of a meeting with Pope Francis.

In a March 13 letter, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, Vicar of Rome, said he had a meeting with the pontiff Friday morning, and that during the conversation, Francis urged him to look beyond the immediate healthcare precautions.

“He prompted us to consider another need: That with the closure of our churches, other ‘little ones’, this time of a different type, will not find a reason for confusion and disorientation,” De Donatis said, adding that the risk of closing churches is “for people is to feel even more isolated.”

In light of his conversation with the pope, De Donatis ordered that only parish churches and those serving as the headquarters for missions be left open. He also encouraged priests to properly discern how to best to help their communities.

“Be very close to the people of God, make each one feel loved and accompanied, help everyone to perceive that the Church does not close its doors to anyone, but is concerned that no little one risks life or is forgotten,” he said.

De Donatis encouraged priests to administer the sacraments and to meet the needs of the poor and those “who have no one to rely on,” while following proper precautionary measures to eliminate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

On March 12 the Diocese of Rome announced the closure of all churches in the city until April 3, even for private prayer. The next day, Pope Francis in his Friday morning Mass warned that “drastic measures aren’t always good” and prayed that pastors will find ways not to leave the People of God alone.

Although parishes have been reopened for prayer, Masses remain suspended through April 3.

In his March 13 letter, De Donatis stressed that the decision to close churches was not made out of “an irrational fear or, worse, a pragmatism devoid of evangelical hope. But out of obedience to the will of God.”

“This ill was manifested to us through the reality of the historical moment that we are living. It is obedience to life, which is perhaps the most demanding way in which the Lord asks us to obey him,” he said, voicing concern that the coronavirus infection is getting exponentially worse in Italy.

Noting that the number of those infected has almost doubled in a matter of days, he said that at this rate, there is genuine concern that in a matter of months “tens of thousands” throughout the peninsula will be infected.

“There is a clear risk of the collapse of healthcare facilities,” which are already overloaded, and many elderly could die, he said, adding that citizens can help curb this “tragic eventuality” by applying precautionary measures, including abiding by government requests not to leave the house unless needed for the sake of the common good.

“This is the reality we are experiencing,” they said, adding that in light of the crisis, “the spiritual need of the people of God to gather to celebrate the Eucharist becomes for us Christians the object of a painful renunciation.”

“There is first the spiritual need of charity in caring for our brothers. Unfortunately, going to church is no different than going other places: there is a risk of infection,” he said, and voiced enthusiasm for the inventive ways Christians have discovered to stay in touch and celebrate the Mass, even “at a distance.”