The novel coronavirus hasn’t just claimed to date 219 infections and five deaths in Italy, in Europe’s worst outbreak of the respiratory disease outside its epicentre in China.

The two biggest days of the pre-Lenten “Carnevale” in Venice have also been called off, and now public Masses are being suspended all around Italy, leading to the cancellation of traditional Ash Wednesday services.

– Mass cancellations in Milan, Venice…

In the Milan archdiocese, Masses have suspended from February 23 until further notice, and the city’s famous cathedral has been closed February 24 and 25, with only has a small area open but reserved for private prayer.

Church authorities in the city – the capital of the northern Italian region of Lombardy, one of the epicentres of the coronavirus outbreak in the country – added that even in the absence of public Eucharists, “funerals and matrimonies can be celebrated, but with the presence only of close relatives”.

In the Venice archdiocese, meanwhile – the capital of the Veneto region, the other ground-zero of the Italian coronovirus outbreak – the prohibition on public Masses, baptisms, Stations of the Cross and other liturgical activities will be in effect until at least March 1, taking in Ash Wednesday February 26, announced Patriarch Francesco Moraglia.

The Venice archbishop invited the faithful on the first day of Lent to “dedicate a convenient time to prayer and meditation” instead of going to the habitual Eucharist with the imposition of ashes.

Moraglia decreed that even funeral Masses were to be suspended in the Venice archdiocese, though priests would still bless the bodies of the deceased in private family gatherings.

As in Milan, Venice’s famous cathedral will also remain closed.

In Padua – also in the Veneto region – while the Pontifical Basilica of St. Anthony will remain open for prayer, Masses and other liturgical activities have also been halted, and the basilica’s museum will remain closed until March 1.

Churches in the Emilia-Romagna and Liguria regions, for their part, have also been affected by the coronavirus-related cancellation of Masses and other parish activities, in compliance with the directions of health authorities to put a temporary halt on public gatherings to prevent the spread of the disease.

In Turin in the Piedmont region, meanwhile, Church authorities have decided to cancel parish gatherings from February 24 until March 1, but on the other hand to continue to allow public Masses during that period, with the only stipulation being that communicants receive the Eucharist in the hand and refrain from exchanging the sign of peace.

Turin Church authorities also directed parish priests to empty holy water fonts to contain the risk of infection, to avoid physical contact with others during the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and to cancel activities for children out of a concern for their health.

– Bishops’ secretary confirms Church “closeness to people impacted by this emergency”

In the midst of the Mass cancellations and church and parish closures, the Italian Bishops, for their part, are urging the population to calm.

Speaking to TGCOM24, Monsignor Stefano Russo, the secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), assured the population that the Italian prelates are following the spread of the coronavirus “very closely and we are very interested in people’s health”.

“We confirm our closeness to the people impacted by this emergency”, Russo added, recalling the prayers offered for the victims of the virus during the Pope’s February 23 visit to Bari.

“At the same time, we are adhering to the provisions that the prefectures are giving”, the CEI secretary general explained.

Russo insisted that the Mass cancellations and church closures were not meant “to contribute to generating further alarm, but we are attentive to everything that is being communicated because we are interested in people’s living conditions”.

Of the authorities’ restrictions on public gatherings, “they are provisions that must be respected”, the monsignor said.

“The state of attention of our government and our administration is so high that naturally we are attentive”, Russo stressed regarding the Italian Bishops’ monitoring of the crisis, adding that “if the situation should change again, we will be careful to correspond to what we are asked”.

– Bishops’ President Cardinal Bassetti commits to combatting “bewilderment and fear”, finding reasons for “hope”

For his part, the president of the Italian Episcopal conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, released a statement addressing the presence of the coronavirus in the country.

Bassetti, who is also Archbishop of Perugia-Citta delle Pieve, outlined the need to protect public health and cooperate with the state and regional authorities in order to reduce the risk of contagion.

“As President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, we feel the duty of full collaboration with the competent State and Regional Authorities to contain the epidemic risk”, the cardinal wrote February 24.

Bassetti said that, in this regard, the Bishops intend to give the maximum response to the situation, working from the guidance already given by medical experts.

“We are committed to doing our part to reduce bewilderment and fear”, the cardinal insisted. He added that “this is the time to find reasons for realism, trust and hope, which allow us to face this difficult situation together”.

(With reporting by Vatican News)

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