ROME: Pope Francis waded into the church-state debate about virus-imposed lockdowns of religious services, calling on Tuesday for "prudence and obedience" to government protocols to prevent infections from surging again.
Francis' appeal came just two days after Italian bishops bitterly complained that the Italian government offered no provisions for Masses to resume in its plan to reopen Italian business, social and sporting life starting May 4.
While it wasn't clear if Francis intended to send a different message than the bishops, his appeal for obedience and prudence was in line with his previous calls to protect the most vulnerable, and for economic interests to take a back seat to shows of solidarity.
At the same time, Francis has certainly chafed at the lockdown, saying early on that he felt like he was in a "cage" and lamenting more recently that the church isn't really "Church" without a community of faithful present and the administration of sacraments.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte's government announced on Sunday that funerals could resume starting May 4, but there was no information on when the faithful could attend Mass. In response, the Italian bishops' conference expressed outrage that its proposals of safety protocols had apparently been ignored.
The bishops said that they "cannot accept that freedom of worship is compromised". They argued the government should have distinguished between its duty to provide health guidance and the church's right to "organize the life of the Christian community, respecting the measures but in full autonomy".
Conte's office hastily responded that it was working on protocols to allow the resumption of liturgical services as soon as possible but "in conditions of maximum security". Francis weighed in on the fraught issue Tuesday at the start of morning Mass celebrated alone in the chapel of the Vatican hotel where he lives.
Francis has been celebrating daily Mass to empty pews in observance of the Vatican's own lockdown measures, which mirror those of Italy, the epicenter of the European pandemic. "As we are beginning to have protocols to get out of quarantine, let us pray that the Lord gives his people, all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience to the protocols so that the pandemic doesn't return," Francis said.
The Vatican has recorded 10 positive cases, the last one confirmed Tuesday in a Holy See official who tested positive but is now asymptomatic. The Vatican said in a statement that all the official's colleagues have tested negative.
When Conte locked all of Italy down in March, Francis' vicar of Rome sparked an outcry among some of the faithful when he ordered all churches shut to comply. The vicar, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, relented after speaking to Francis and allowed diocesan churches to remain open for individual prayer.
De Donatis later tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized for 11 days before being released earlier this month. Francis' weekly Sunday blessings from his window overlooking an empty St. Peter's Square, not to mention his solo Holy Week and Easter services, have served as a stark visual reminder of how the pandemic has radically altered the practice of communal religious observance.
Some Catholic conservatives and traditionalists have bristled at the closures and framed them as a violation of their right to religious liberty.
Some evangelical pastors in the US, Brazil and elsewhere have resisted lockdowns and held services, and big religious observances in South Korea, France and Iran have been been blamed for helping to spread the infection early on.