Public Masses Resume in Italy, but Not Without Controversy

The head of Italy’s bishops and the Italian prime minister signed a joint protocol May 7 allowing public Masses to resume.

A priest distributes Holy Communion in Italy on Monday.
A priest distributes Holy Communion in Italy on Monday. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez)

ROME — Many of Italy’s faithful welcomed the resumption of public Masses in Rome and the rest of Italy today two months after public celebrations of the Eucharist were suspended across the country due to the coronavirus.

But some Catholics continue to have strong reservations about restrictions for the “Phase 2” of the Covid-19 lockdown, while others have accused Italy’s bishops of using the pandemic as an excuse to “dismantle the liturgy.”

In many of the larger basilicas, such as St. Peter’s or the Duomo in Milan, worshipers were being thermal tested before entering. A limited number are allowed into a church depending on its size, masks are obligatory, and social distancing is advised through signs on pews. To ensure a quota for the numbers of worshipers is not exceeded, online bookings are being made available.

“It’s real, I’m happy, even emotional,” said Sonia Mauro as she attended Mass at the Duomo in Milan. “I missed the Eucharist even though I followed it on TV,” she told the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire. “There is a need to also feel physically Church.”

On May 7, the head of Italy’s bishops conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a joint protocol allowing public Masses to resume. Among the stipulations of the decree is that priests and extraordinary ministers of Communion distribute Holy Communion wearing masks and disposable gloves.

Article 3.4 of the protocol, signed after lengthy talks with the government, rules:

“The distribution of Communion will take place after the celebrant and the possible extraordinary minister have taken care of the hygiene of their hands and worn disposable gloves; the same person — wearing the mask, taking care to cover their nose and mouth and maintaining an adequate safety distance — takes care to offer the host without coming into contact with the hands of the faithful.”

“The masks and gloves? You almost don’t realize it,” said Mauro. “After a few minutes they disappear from your mind, you don’t notice it anymore.”

But the sight of priests distributing Holy Communion wearing disposable gloves and masks caused some consternation on social media and elsewhere. A few supported it, welcoming the new measures as, “wonderful” and adding it was “so good to receive sacraments while ensuring life protections.”

But others have strongly opposed it. “How sad!” commented one. “This is a total disrespect and mistrust in Our Lord,” said another. Others wrote to remind the Church in Italy that the “Eucharist is God,” and that it is “such an appalling sight! May God forgive us.”

Simona, a Rome citizen, expressed her disapproval and asked why the rule applies to receiving the Host but the “same rule isn’t applied in grocery stores or the pasticcerie [pastry shop].” Similar arguments were made about suspending public Masses while supermarkets were allowed to be open throughout the lockdown.

She told the Register it was probably because they were “thinking of precautions that doctors make because of their contact with bodies.” But applied here, she said “such a precaution effectively denies the sacrality of the Eucharist, it denies his Body and Blood.”

Priests in Rome have said privately they are very unhappy about the disposable gloves rule but worry about going against it for fear of sanctions by the police. Of particular concern is what happens to the disposable gloves after they have touched the Lord in the Sacred Host.

The Italian bishops are also suggesting tweezers be used but a possible alternative and arguably more acceptable suggestion being proposed is to cut the large, pre-consecrated hosts into strips rather than distribute the usual disc-shaped Hosts, and have the communicant receive Communion on the tongue. This would prevent both the minister of Communion coming into contact with the communicant, as well as avoid the communicant having to touch their hands or their mouth and face.

Communion in the hand is returning to the discussion after it was raised early on during the pandemic as a possible solution to prevent contagion.

Andrea Zambrano, a journalist with the Catholic online daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, said evidence suggests the pandemic is being used as “excuse to dismantle the liturgy,” beginning with the “prohibition of Communion on the tongue” which he said was not in the joint protocol with the government but which the Italian bishops “added later” in each episcopal decree for individual dioceses. The news was first reported on the MiL - Messainlatino website

The website explained that the Orthodox, in their protocols signed with the government on May 15, made sure they could receive Communion much as before, as long as they took precautions not to come into contact with the faithful.

The relevant protocol, Article 2.4, is almost identical to Article 3.4 for the Catholic Church, but without any mention of coming into contact with the “hands” of the faithful. It simply states that the ministrant must “take care to offer the Eucharist at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy without coming into contact with the faithful.”

The same applies to the Lutherans and Methodists’ protocols, but the Orthodox are allowed to continue to receive Holy Communion in their own way and on the tongue, some also from a common spoon.

According to Avvenire, communicants must now receive the consecrated host “exclusively on the hands” and are also not to say the word the “Amen” after having received the Eucharist. Other reports in other Italian Catholic publications along with dioceses throughout the country are also insisting on Communion in the hand, including the metropolitan archdiocese of Milan.

“One sees that for certain confessions, Communion on the tongue carries no risk of contagion,” Zambrano wrote sardonically. “Or perhaps one sees that certain confessions are not — to use another magic word these days — responsible.”

Communion in the hand has been the focus of a long-running and impassioned debate within the Church, with concern that it is an act of irreverence to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The issue came to a head in March when bishops began insisting on receiving in the hand to avoid contagion, even though studies showed Communion on the tongue presented no greater risk if carried out properly.

In comments to the Register, Italian bishops’ conference spokesman Vincenzo Corrado said the May 7 protocol “does not specify a way of receiving the Eucharist, but rather a concern ‘not to come into contact with the hands of the faithful.’”

After reciting the Regina Caeli yesterday, Pope Francis said for the second time in less than two weeks that the faithful should accept the protocols. “Please, let’s go ahead with the rules, the prescriptions they give us, so as to safeguard the health of everyone and of the people,” he said in unscripted remarks.