Polish Priest tries to ward off coronavirus with street blessings

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish Priest Miroslaw Matuszny hopes he has found a new way to help fight the coronavirus outbreak - walking the streets of the eastern city of Lublin and inviting churchgoers in isolation to come to their windows to pray the virus away.

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Carrying a relic of Saint Anthony, a patron of Matuszny’s church, the priest walked around the outside of his parish and its neighborhood on Tuesday evening, praying out loud and encouraging churchgoers to light candles in their windows.

“This is an unusual situation...I want to pray in this way not only for the coronavirus to go away but also against the danger of people losing their faith,” Matuszny told Reuters.

His actions come after Poland, one of Europe’s most staunchly Catholic countries, shut cinemas, schools, theaters and its borders, while limiting gatherings to 50 people or less, effectively curtailing many Masses, in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Under normal circumstances, a third of the Polish population attends Mass regularly.

Poland has confirmed 251 coronavirus cases so far and five people have died.

The Polish move is still less restrictive than some of measures taken in Europe affecting the church.

In Europe’s worst-affected country Italy, bishops took the unprecedented step of ordering that Masses not be held during the week in churches in northern areas.

Catholics railed against a decision to close churches in Rome altogether, leading to some being reopened.

Even though it didn’t explicitly call for an end to Masses or a closure of churches, the Polish government’s restrictions have forced priests to become more creative.

Matuszny said, while many Masses can be streamed online or on TV, bringing Masses to the street would ensure Poles don’t lose touch with God.

Historically, Poles have tended to turn to the church for support in time of crisis. The Polish Church supported the pro-democracy Solidarity movement during the 1980s, inspired by Pope John Paul II, a strident anti-communist from Poland.

Matuszny will keep up the practice, as long as he is still allowed outside. “It will be like this everyday until the quarantine is over,” he said.

Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Alexandra Hudson