Italian churches prepare to resume funerals after eight-week ban

Italian churches prepare to resume funerals after eight-week ban

Undertakers wearing face masks carry a coffin in a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy, March 16, 2020. Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Undertakers wearing face masks carry a coffin in a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy, March 16, 2020. Credit: AFP via Getty Images

.- After eight weeks without funerals, Italian families will be able finally to gather together to mourn and pray at funeral Masses for the victims of the coronavirus starting May 4.

In Milan, the largest city in Italy’s coronavirus epicenter, priests are preparing for an influx of funeral requests in the coming weeks in the Lombardy region, where 13,679 have died.

Fr. Mario Antonelli, who oversees liturgies on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milan, told CNA that archdiocesan leadership met April 30 to coordinate guidelines for Catholic funerals as more than 36,000 people remain positive for COVID-19 in their region.

“I am moved, thinking of so many dear people who have wanted [a funeral] and still desire one,” Fr. Antonelli said April 30.

He said that the church in Milan is ready like the Good Samaritan to “pour oil and wine on the wounds of many who have suffered the death of a loved one with the terrible agony of not being able to say goodbye and embrace.”

A Catholic funeral is “not just a solemn farewell from loved ones,” the priest explained, adding that it expresses a pain like childbirth. “It is the cry of pain and loneliness that becomes a song of hope and communion with the desire for an everlasting love.”

Funerals in Milan will occur on an individual basis with no more than 15 people in attendance, as required by “phase two” of the Italian government’s coronavirus measures. 

Priests are asked to notify local authorities when a funeral is scheduled to take place and ensure that social distancing measures defined by the diocese are followed throughout the liturgy. 

Milan is home to the Ambrosian rite, the Catholic liturgical rite named for St. Ambrose, who led the diocese in the 4th century.

“According to the Ambrosian rite, the funeral liturgy includes three ‘stations’: the visit / blessing of the body with the family; community celebration (with or without Mass); and burial rites at the cemetery,” Antonelli explained. 

“Trying to reconcile the sense of the liturgy … and the sense of civic responsibility, we ask the priests to refrain from visiting the family of the deceased to bless the body,” he said.

While Milan archdiocese is limiting priests from the traditional blessing of the body in the home of the family, the funeral Mass and burial rites will be able to take place at a church or “preferably” at a cemetery, Antonelli added. 

During the nearly two months without Masses and funerals, dioceses in northern Italy have been maintaining telephone lines for grieving families with spiritual counsel and psychological services. In Milan, the service is called “Hello, is this an angel?” and is operated by priests and religious who spend time on the phone with the sick, the mourning, and the lonely. 

Aside from funerals, public Masses will still not be allowed throughout Italy under the government’s May 4 coronavirus restrictions. As Italy eases its lockdown, it remains unclear when public Masses will be allowed by the Italian government.

Italian bishops have been critical of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s latest coronavirus measures, announced on April 26, saying that they “arbitrarily exclude the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people."

According to the prime minister’s April 26 announcement, the easing of lockdown measures will allow retail stores, museums, and libraries to reopen beginning May 18 and restaurants, bars, and hair salons June 1.

Movement between Italian regions, within regions, and within cities and towns is still prohibited except under strict cases of necessity.

In a letter April 23, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, the president of the Italian bishops' conference, wrote that “the time has come to resume the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist, and church funerals, baptisms and all the other sacraments, naturally following those measures necessary to guarantee security in the presence of more people in public places.”

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