Italian bishops have slapped down right-wing populist politician Matteo Salvini who was angling for the reopening of churches at Easter amid the coronavirus pandemic.

– Cardinal Bassetti: “It’s time for responsibility”

“This is a time for responsibility, not polemics, and we’ll see who’s capable of it”, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, said in an interview with newspaper Corriere delle Sera, when asked what he thought of those pressing for churches to reopen during Christianity’s holiest time of the year.

Salvini had agitated on social media and asked that churches be opened to allow the faithful to celebrate the Easter rites, saying “science alone is not enough” to stop the coronavirus, but that “God” is also needed.

“I support requests for those who are asking, in an orderly and compact way and with full respect for public health, to be able to go to church, even in groups of three, four or five people, for Easter Mass”, said Salvini, leader of the League and former Italian Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister.

“You can go to the tobacco shop because people couldn’t make it without cigarettes, but for many, taking care of the soul is as fundamental as the body.

“This is an appeal to the bishops to allow believers in limited numbers to go to church just like in the supermarkets, respecting distance, with masks and gloves”.

In addition to Salvini, there have been some ultra-conservative groups that have criticised the suspension of Masses during the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, which has already killed more than 15,000 people after a month of restrictive limitations on movement.

“It’s the first time that Easter is celebrated in this way without a contribution from the faithful, but that doesn’t mean giving up living these days in an updated way”, said Bassetti.

The cardinal furthermore invited the faithful to ask: “Where is our faith? In the Word or in a place?”

“The impossibility of being able to attend Easter Masses this year is an act of generosity”, Bassetti insisted.

“It is our duty to respect those who, in an emergency, are on the frontline and that much at great risk to their safety”.

– Cardinal Zuppi: “Taking risks is dangerous”

In the meantime, in an interview in the newspaper La Reppublica, Archbishop of Bologna Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi said: “I too would also like to be able to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with the community”.

“However, taking risks is dangerous; the rules must be respected and the Church, too, has a duty to do that”.

The Bologna archbishop went on to explain that, perhaps, the prayers of the people at home “are in fact the prayers most dear to the Lord”.

“These days we are rediscovering prayer and silent service”, Zuppi reflected.

On Sunday Pope Francis encouraged those people and families who cannot participate in liturgical celebrations this Easter “to gather together in prayer at home, aided by the means of technology”.

Pope Francis will also celebrate the rites of Holy Week without the presence of the faithful, but the papal services will be retransmitted by Vatican media.

– Prelate could be fined for celebrating Palm Sunday Mass with forty faithful

In other coronavirus news from Italy, Bishop of Frascati Raffaello Martinelli could receive a fine as could some forty faithful who participated with him in a Mass on Palm Sunday in the cathedral of the diocese located southeast of Rome.

The bishop announced the Eucharist only early Sunday morning to prevent the faithful from attending, with only seven concelebrants and six lay people – charged with assisting in the liturgy and the Internet broadcast of the Mass – having been expected to participate.

“Some problem could have happened towards the end of the celebration, when some people interested in picking up olive branches entered”, Martinelli confessed.

“For me, it is very important to respect the current health regulations and the health of myself and others”, added the bishop.

He protested that in the future he would better control access to the cathedral during liturgical celebrations, when the doors cannot be closed “for security reasons”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.