ROME — Pope Francis had sharp words last weekend for “disobedient” priests who continued to say public Mass for the faithful and to hear confessions during the coronavirus lockdown, accusing them of behaving like “adolescents.”
“In recent months, people have not been able to participate in the liturgical celebrations, but they have not stopped feeling like a community,” the pope told a gathering of healthcare personnel from the hard-hit Lombardy region. “They prayed individually or as a family, including through the media, spiritually united and perceiving that the Lord’s embrace went beyond the limits of space.”
Francis praised “the pastoral zeal and creative concern of priests” who helped people to continue along the path of faith without feeling alone in the face of pain and fear during the lockdown, but drew the line at those who bucked civil decrees calling for the suspension of the sacraments.
“In a few cases, this priestly creativity turned into adolescent expressions of rebellion against the regulations of the authorities, who have an obligation to safeguard the health of the people,” Francis said, “But most were obedient and creative.”
The pope was referring to widely publicized cases of priests and bishops who continued celebrating Masses and hearing confessions without turning away the faithful, even at the risk of being fined or arrested.
In mid-March, for example, the local police of Cerveteri, outside Rome, interrupted a Mass that was being live-streamed on Facebook because there were several people kneeling outdoors in front of the Church. The officers dismissed the priest who was celebrating the Mass and then went up to the altar and ordered the faithful to depart, telling them it was forbidden for them to be there.
The week before Easter, Italian law enforcement intervened at the end of a Palm Sunday Mass celebrated by Bishop Raffaello Martinelli in the diocese of Frascati, to the southeast of Rome, with some 40 persons in attendance.
The bishop had left the doors to the cathedral open and made sure that the faithful kept a safe distance from one another, but despite these precautions he received a fine for non-compliance with the rules against the coronavirus pandemic, which defined church attendance as a non-essential — and therefore unlawful — activity.
In mid-April, police broke up an Easter vigil Mass with a congregation of some thirty people at the church of St. Mary of the Virgins in the southern Italian region of Calabria. A priest named Father Giovanni De Riggi was officiating the service and later apologized on the parish’s Facebook page, but insisted he was observing safety protocols and social distancing.
“In the celebration held behind closed doors, there were only the figures required by the rite along with their families, all of whom were seated one per pew, in full respect of the social distance imposed and without any public gathering,” the priest wrote.
That same weekend, police raided a church in the northwestern Italian city of Sanremo on suspicions that an illicit public Mass might be underway, but found only a small group of people engaged in private prayer and observing appropriate distances.
While shunning such priestly behavior as “adolescent,” Pope Francis praised those who fully complied with all the regulations and found alternative ways to be present to the faithful without the sacraments.
“I admired the apostolic spirit of so many priests, who went with their phones, knocked on doors, rang houses: ‘Do you need anything? I can go shopping for you…’ A thousand things,” Francis said.
“These priests who remained beside their people in caring and daily sharing: they were a sign of God’s consoling presence,” the pope said. “They were fathers, not adolescents.”