The 83-year-old pontiff is standing off against Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister, who just announced that COVID-19 has claimed 1,266 lives in Italy, jumping by 250 in a single day.
Pope Francis voiced his discontent with the way the Italian government is putting an enormous amount of political pressure on the Catholic Church to halt mass services.
Italy has placed the entire country under strict lockdown. To enforce this, soldiers and police officers alike are patrolling city streets, forcing people who dare to venture out to turn back -- but the Pope, nestled safely inside the walls of Vatican City, remains defiant, ordering several churches around the eternal city to remain open.
However, not even the pontiff’s subordinates are immune to pressure from the Italian government. The Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Angelo de Donatis, said he could no longer ignore government pressure and ordered the closure of all Catholic places of worship across Rome, around 900 churches in total -- Pope Francis, to put it mildly, was not pleased.
“Drastic measures are not always good,” he said during his live-streamed Friday morning prayers.
The pontiff prayed for his “pastors to have the good judgement... not to leave the holy, faithful people of God alone.”
The Vicar then issued a statement explaining that he met with the Pope and agreed that some churches should remain open. He stated that he ultimately decided closing every church in Rome would “sow confusion” among Catholics and cause them to “feel even more isolated.”
The Vicar’s final decree stated that tourists would still be banned from visiting Rome’s churches, but several smaller churches in Rome would be open specifically to cater to faithful Italian Catholics.
“Dear priests, we rely on your wise discernment,” the Vicar wrote in his statement. “Help everyone feel like the Church is not closing its doors on them.”
This spat with the Vicar of Rome comes just after the Pope urged Catholic priests to go out and visit coronavirus patients and to “bring the strength of God’s word.” This, the Pope claims, would help the Catholic Church show its solidarity with health workers struggling to care for the sick and to combat COVID-19’s spread across Italy. (Related: Israeli PM orders 2-week isolation for all arrivals, Italy places ENTIRE country on lockdown as coronavirus sweeps through Middle East and Europe.)
In a sermon that he live-streamed from the safety of the Vatican’s walls, the Pope urged his priests to support medical personnel dealing with the outbreak.
“Let us pray to the Lord also for our priests, that they may have the courage to go out and go to the sick people to bring the strength of God’s word and the Eucharist and accompany the health workers and volunteers in this work that they are doing.”
However, the Pope seems to have walked back on this statement, as the Holy See’s press office stated that the Vatican would be respecting Italy’s lockdown and would itself close down several buildings within the city-state. Matteo Bruni, director of the press office, said that one person within the Vatican tested positive for the coronavirus and another five people were under quarantine and observation.
He further stated that, as a precautionary measure in conjunction with Italy’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, all of the Vatican’s museums would be closed until April 3.
The Italian Bishops’ Conference also said that their respective dioceses would comply with a request put forward by the Italian government to temporarily suspend most civil and religious ceremonies and gatherings throughout the country. They said in a statement that even though the lockdown would mean “suffering and hardship for pastors, priests and the faithful,” they understood that the measures were necessary for the country’s public health.
As of press time, Italy reports having 17,660 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 1,266 deaths and 1,439 recoveries. The Italian government has imposed the most severe controls on freedom of movement on any European nation since World War II.
In a televised address given on Monday, Prime Minister Conte explained that travel will only be allowed for work and family emergencies that pertain to health. Along with this, all sporting events are canceled until the end of the lockdown.
And then, just two days after his initial address, Conte announced in a Facebook Live address that the lockdown would be tightened. Almost all business has shut down, save for groceries, pharmacies and other “essential stores.” Armed police officers wearing face masks have been seen roaming the streets of Italy’s largest cities, such as Rome, Venice and Naples, to enforce the lockdown.
Conte also said that public services would remain operational. This includes public transport, utilities, agriculture, mail and banking.
Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the BBC that people who don’t respect the lockdown would be either fined or face criminal charges.
Furthermore, the government is mobilizing quickly to try and curtail COVID-19’s impact on the “initial red zone,” or the group of towns and cities in the northern Italian region of Lombardy that became the epicenter of the Italian outbreak. The initial red zone is still seeing a surge in coronavirus cases.
In fact, China is even sending Italy a team of doctors and a plane full of 31 tons of medical supplies to help with the Italian outbreak. This donation includes 700 pieces of medical equipment, including ventilators, monitors, defibrillators, and 30 sets of ICU equipment.
The shipment also reportedly includes plasma from recovered coronavirus patients. Chinese medical experts believe that transfusions with the plasma will assist in critical COVID-19 cases.
“Italy was the first nation in Europe to be affected so badly,” said Di Maio. “But I hope it also means that Italy is the first one to leave the emergency behind.”