Public Masses in Italy to resume May 18, ending bitter Church-state rift

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s government and Roman Catholic bishops signed an agreement on Thursday to allow the faithful to attend Masses again from later this month, ending a standoff between the Church and state over the coronavirus lockdown.

The government banned attendance at Masses in early March, part of its prohibition on gatherings as it sought to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many Catholics asserted that church services should have been permitted along with other essential activities such as food shopping.

Tensions ran high again late last month when the government announced a gradual staged easing of the lockdown, but did not include a return to Masses in a phase that began on May 4.

The bishops told the government they could “not accept seeing the exercise of freedom of religion being compromised”. Most of Italy’s churches have remained open during the crisis, but only for individual prayer.

Catholics have been following Masses on television or on the internet as priests said them in empty churches.

With Thursday’s agreement, Masses for the public can resume on May 18 but under strict conditions outlined in a protocol signed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Bishops Conference.

Individual pastors will determine the maximum number of people who can fit in a church while staying at least a meter (yard) apart.

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If there is demand, additional Masses should be held, rather than allowing more people into the church for one service, the protocol says.

The faithful will have to wear masks in church. Priests can celebrate most of the Mass without masks but they will have to wear one, as well as gloves, when they distribute the communion wafer.

Initially, choirs will be banned, holy water fonts will remain dry, and the traditional exchange of a sign of peace - usually in the form of a handshake - will be eliminated.

The collection, in which a basket is passed around for offerings of money, will be replaced by containers where the faithful can make contributions.

Nearly 30,000 people have died of the coronavirus in Italy, the third highest death toll in the world after the United States and Britain. A new phase of loosening of restrictions began on Monday, when some 4.5 million people returned to work.

The Masses will resume on the same day Italian museums and libraries can reopen.

The Vatican, which for the most part has been mirroring Italy’s containment measures, has not yet said when St. Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican museums will reopen. Pope Francis celebrated the major Christian feast of Easter last month with none of the usual packed crowds.

Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Frances Kerry