In a grim sign of the times, a man entered a parish church in Italy’s coronavirus-ravaged north over the weekend and threatened the pastor, demanding money. In a typical robbery, the thief would have worn a mask and gloves; this time he deliberately had neither, implicitly threatening to infect the priest if he didn’t pay up.
The man eventually was captured by police, but the climate of fear his attempted shake-down illustrates has proven far harder to arrest.
Against that backdrop, Pope Francis yesterday opened perhaps the most unusual Holy Week of all time. With Easter just days away, debate continues to swirl about how accessible churches and pastors should be on the holiest day on the Christian calendar - and, for that matter, whether Easter ought to be celebrated next Sunday at all.
Although Italy appears to have flattened the curve of the pandemic, with projections currently suggesting that some regions may reach zero new infections by mid-April, the death toll continues to mount - 15,887 as of Sunday - and authorities insist it will be some time before a strict national lockdown can begin to be rolled back.
Despite that, polarizing Italian politician Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party, called in a television interview Saturday for churches across the country to be open for Mass on Easter Sunday, saying it would be a chance to entrust the struggle against the coronavirus to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
“I support requests for those who are asking, in an orderly and compact way and with full respect for public health, to be able to go to church, even in groups of three, four or five people, for Easter Mass,” Salvini said.
“You can go to the tobacco shop because people couldn’t make it without cigarettes, but for many, taking care of the soul is as fundamental as the body,” he said.
“This is an appeal to the bishops to allow believers in limited numbers to go to church just like in the supermarkets, respecting distance, with masks and gloves,” Salvini said. “Easter is the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for millions of Italians it could be an important moment of hope.”
The populist Salvini is well-known for invoking Catholic symbols, including praying his rosary of the Madonna of Medjugorje during sessions of parliament and brandishing it at political rallies, despite routinely clashing with church authorities and Pope Francis over issues such as immigration.
His proposal to open churches for Easter brought swift reaction, including priests who took to social media to express opposition.
“Dear Salvini, today the churches are closed because we priests respect the law of our country,” wrote Father Dino Pirri of Grottammare, located in the Marche region on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Pirri is a well-known figure with over 35,000 Twitter followers, hosting a popular Saturday evening program commenting on the next day’s Gospel readings for TV2000, the official television channel of the Italian bishops.
“We obey our bishops, not you,” Pirri wrote. “We don’t use our people, we love them. We’re not looking for popularity but the common good.”
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, told Corriere della Sera, Italy’s paper of record, that “this is a time for responsibility, not polemics, and we’ll see who’s capable of it.”
A different proposal wouldn’t open churches for Easter ahead of a green light from health officials, but rather delay Easter altogether until that green light comes.
A number of Italian priests and clergy have reacted with interest to a call from the Rev. Kwabena Opuni Frimpong, a Presbyterian and executive director of the Alliance for Christian Advocacy for Africa, for churches in his native Ghana to set their own date for Easter this year at the end of a four-week national lockdown imposed by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo.
The idea is that because Easter is already a movable feast, varying each year according to the lunar calendar, in principle it could be delayed until conditions allow for people to return to church.
Supporters of not celebrating Holy Week under quarantine cite a 1988 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Paschalis sollemnitatis, which held with regard to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday: “Following a very ancient tradition of the Church, on this day all Masses without the people are prohibited.”
They also appeal to the Old Testament’s 2 Chronicles, chapter 30, which describes a decision by the King Hezekiah of Israel and his assembly to delay celebration of Passover by a month because “the priests had not sanctified themselves in sufficient numbers, and the people were not gathered at Jerusalem.”
“What sense does it make to celebrate Easter without the people?” said Father Gennaro Matino, a well-known priest and theologian from Naples.
“Maybe it would be better to delay the feast and wait for a better time, when the emergency is over,” Matino said. “If we’re living in extraordinary times, and it seems clear to me we are, then we can also make extraordinary decisions.”
German Jesuit Father Ulrich Rhode, however, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Gregorian University, is dubious.
“Theoretically it’s possible, but we don’t know the future of this epidemic and you can’t take for granted that it’ll be over by May or June,” Rhode said.
Practically, Rhode said, a postponed Easter also would mean an extended Lent, “which would create problems from a liturgical point of view.”
“Besides which, it should be said that Easter celebrates the risen Jesus, which is valid even in dark times such as this - in fact, maybe in such cases it’s truly a feast of consolation,” Rhode said.
While a back-and-forth about delaying Easter may continue, there’s no evidence Pope Francis is considering it.
The Vatican announced the pope’s plans for Holy Week on March 27, and there’s no indication he won’t lead Easter Mass in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica next Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Rome time, followed by the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square.