VATICAN CITY -- The suspension of public Masses in Italy is a painful yet necessary measure to protect people's health, the country's bishops said.
"This is a very restrictive step, the acceptance of which causes suffering and difficulty for pastors, priests and the faithful," the Italian bishops' conference said in a statement March 8.
After the Italian government issued a decree barring the celebration of all "civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals," the bishops announced the suspension of public Masses until April 3.
"The acceptance of the decree is only mediated by the desire to do one's part, even in this situation, to contribute to the protection of public health," the bishops said.
As of March 9, the health and safety precautions published by the Vatican did not include a ban on public celebrations of the Mass, but they did insist that everything possible be done to ensure that people stay one meter (a yard) apart.
Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, papal vicar of the Diocese of Rome, said that while all public Masses are suspended, churches "will remain open, as usual, for personal prayer."
The Diocese of Rome, he said, "will assume an attitude of full responsibility toward the community in the knowledge that protection from infection requires even drastic measures, especially in interpersonal contact."
"May this time of Lent help us to live this great test evangelically," Cardinal De Donatis said.
Bishops throughout the country have sent letters not only to inform their dioceses about the suspensions but to also address concerns by some that such measures are too drastic.
Suspending the public celebration of Mass, "may seem exaggerated in our region, especially after we have committed to organizing participation according to the rules of safe distance and hygienic precautions that should keep us safe from the risks of spreading the virus," said Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi in a March 9 letter to his diocese.
Nevertheless, "the virus is spreading in Italy and around the world, causing suffering and death," he wrote. "If we don't contain it, hospital infrastructures will collapse with inevitable repercussions not only for the infected but also for all other sick people."
Celebrating a televised Mass at the Rome Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati March 9, Bishop Stefano Russo, secretary general of the Italian bishops' conference, said that amid the new restrictions, "the Lord speaks to all of us, especially today.
"He speaks to us in the affliction of the present moment," Bishop Russo said, according to SIR, the Italian bishops' news agency. "He invites us to that sense of responsibility that comes from entrusting ourselves to His mercy; He encourages us to find trust, harmony, sharing and unity of purpose."
Vatican closes museums
The Vatican has instituted new measures and closures to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In addition to urging employees to work from home if possible and providing family leave for workers with minors at home due to school closures, Pope Francis also was making some events -- normally held outdoors with large crowds -- closed to visitors, filmed indoors and broadcast online.
The pope's Wednesday general audience March 11, like the March 8 Sunday Angelus, was to be livestreamed on Vatican News and YouTube "to avoid the risk of spreading the COVID-19 (coronavirus)," especially given the crowding that occurs at the security checkpoints on entering the square, the Vatican announced March 7.
The Vatican also said that until March 15, the pope's morning Masses at his residence would not be open to visitors but would be shown in their entirety online.
Following the lead of the Italian government, the Vatican also announced March 8 that the Vatican Museums, the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica and the museum at the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo would be closed until April 3 to do its part in reducing attractions that normally draw a large number of international visitors to closed and crowded places.
The beefed-up measures were made public after the Vatican reported March 6 that its health clinic was temporarily closed to disinfect the area after a person using the clinic tested positive for the coronavirus.
Based on precautions and protocols consistent with Italian government health standards, the Vatican issued a large number of recommendations and measures for all offices and entities that are part of the Roman Curia, the Holy See and Vatican City State. The Vatican released copies of the provisions March 8.
In addition to all previous health protocols already issued, the Vatican health and hygiene department recommended people: not congregate in common areas; avoid using elevators unless physically impaired; stay a yard apart from others in closed areas; frequently disinfect areas and objects; avoid having outside visitors; notify management in case of travel to high-risk areas; and contact medical professionals by telephone if displaying flu-like symptoms.
The Vatican also urged those in charge of Vatican offices to consider the impact emergency measures were having on employees and to consider offering their staff the following options where appropriate or possible: avoid having staff work overtime or calling in volunteers or outside help; suspend hiring new personnel unless absolutely necessary; promote flexibility in scheduling for employees who have children so they can spend more time with their families; promote working from home for employees where possible; allow extra family leave provisions for employees who request it and have children under the age of 14 and need supervision because of nationwide school closures.