By Melissa Butz and Crux Staff
ROME — As Italy promotes an aggressive “stay at home” campaign in an effort to combat the rapid spread of the coronavirus across the country, Pope Francis is urging at least one group not to take the message completely to heart, imploring priests March 10 to “get out” to bring comfort to the sick and to support health care workers.
“May priests have the courage to get out,” the pontiff said during his Tuesday morning Mass, “going to the sick to bring them the comfort of God, [and] to bring them the Eucharist” as well as to show solidarity with health workers scrambling to combat the COVID-19 epidemic.
The Holy Father’s words came the morning after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced sweeping new measures to combat the spread of the virus, following new data showing Italy has surpassed South Korea with the second-highest total number of cases in the world after China, with 9,172, and remains the second-number of deaths, with 463.
Conte said Monday night the entire country is under a strict travel ban as of this morning, with movements between regions limited to reasons of work or family and health care emergencies. Museums, theaters, cinemas, gyms and public pools, as well as all schools and universities, are closed until at least April 3, and restaurants and bars have been ordered to close at 6:00 p.m. every day.
In response to the virus, Italian celebrities and politicians have been promoting a social media campaign under the hashtag #iorestoacasa, “I’m staying at home,” directed primarily at Italian youth who may be tempted to go out despite the restrictions.
The campaign has drawn wide support, including from Italian soccer player Ciccio Caputo of the Sassuolo club. In the last game played in Italy’s top-flight Serie A championship Monday night before the suspension went into effect, Caputo scored a goal in a stadium empty of fans and then ran to a TV camera to display a hand-written message reading: “Everything’s going to be fine. #stay at home!”
In that context, Pope Francis began his daily Mass on Tuesday expressing concern for all those suffering as a result of the virus, urging priests to continue to get out to visit the sick.
As part of the restrictions on public assemblies, Italy’s Catholic bishops have suspended all public Masses, weddings and funerals until at least April 3. Those restrictions, however, do not prevent priests from making private calls upon individual persons, providing the usual precautions are taken, including maintaining a meter of distance from other persons and avoiding unnecessary physical contact.
In his homily Tuesday morning, Pope Francis warned against the spiritual temptation of vanity, saying it incudes a sinner to “close in upon himself” and to “hide himself,” rather than “bringing his sins to God.”
Vanity, the pontiff warned, is “poisonous,” using the example of the Gospel description of “doctors of the law” to suggest it leads to a “hard heart.”
The pontiff’s Mass was livestreamed on the “Vatican News” web site and the Vatican’s Youtube channel. It was celebrated before a small congregation, composed mostly of religious sisters and laity who work in the Casa Santa Marta, the residence on Vatican grounds where Pope Francis lives.
Rather then being delivered in front of a live audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father’s General Audience March 11 will be livestreamed from the library of the papal apartments in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, once again to avoid forming crowds with a heightened risk of transmission of the disease.