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The coronavirus diseases COVID-19 has killed several thousand people around the world, sickened tens of thousands and disrupted life for millions. Some large events, such as the Carnival in Venice, have been canceled.
Now, even some of the sites most closely associated with Jesus are being restricted due to the outbreak.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has been closed, after the first cases of the virus were reported in the area, the Palestinian tourism ministry announced Thursday. The church, built over the birthplace of Jesus, was closed after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the virus, Fox News reported.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, issued guidelines for parishes, churches, chapels, religious houses and any other place of worship in the entire territory of Palestine. Churches will remain open only for individual prayer. Masses can be celebrated, but only for groups no larger than 15, provided that there is sufficient distance between people in the church (at least one meter). Otherwise, the faithful are exempt from the Sunday Mass obligation.
The guidelines, issued in response to a Palestinian Ministry of Health decree declaring the closure of schools, mosques and churches for 14 days, also include:
- Funerals must be held in cemeteries, with as few people as possible.
- The Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) can be held in squares or open spaces, if the weather is appropriate; otherwise it is to be prayed within one’s own family.
- All ecclesial and pastoral activities, including youth groups, scouts and others are canceled.
- If conditions permit, parish priests are to organize online streaming of Masses through the use of the media and to communicate this possibility to their parishioners. The same applies to catechism and other similar initiatives.
- Individual parish priests may find ways and forms to allow the faithful to receive the Eucharist, “the Bread that gives us strength for the journey,” such as in holding outdoor Masses, but “always in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry and with a sense of responsibility.”
- The faithful are encouraged to “pray at home, read the Bible, and continue to fast, asking God for mercy and forgiveness.”
Around the Catholic World
Elsewhere in the world, pilgrims might find some shrines and holy places closed or their access somewhat limited. Since the spread of the disease is somewhat unpredictable, things can change quickly, so it’s best for travelers to check the websites of individual places of interest before traveling.
In Milan, the epicenter of a severe outbreak in Italy, the Duomo reopened to tourists on Monday “with programmed and organized access to avoid crowds of people.”
In Rome, Holy See spokesman Matteo Bruni said Thursday, “Regarding the activities of the Holy Father, the Holy See and the Vatican City State in the coming days, measures are being studied aimed at avoiding the spread of Covid-19, to be implemented in coordination with those adopted by the Italian authorities.”
America magazine reporter Gerard O’Connell feels that the statement meant that the Vatican is “likely to follow Italy’s lead in taking strong measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and may suspend all the public audiences with the pope over the next two weeks.”
O’Connell reported that the crowd at last Sunday’s Angelus in St. Peter’s Square could be counted in hundreds, not the thousands. “People are scared they might catch the virus and stayed away,” he wrote. “It is noticeable, too, that there are no longer queues to enter St. Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican museums.”
The Vatican Museums continue to be open, but a report in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero said that they have experienced “an estimated 60% drop in attendance.” A Vatican spokesman, however, refused to confirm those reports, according to Catholic News Service.
When the outbreak first hit Italy, the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology closed all of Italy’s ancient catacombs, saying that the humid conditions and narrow spaces would allow the virus to spread, Reuters reported February 27.
The Sanctuary of Fátima in Portugal has not canceled any daily celebrations, and everything is “going smoothly, despite some preventive measures, taken at the beginning of last week, which continue to be observed, and a contingency plan that will be activated depending on the circumstances,” a spokesman, Carmo Rodeia, told Aleteia.
“The preventive measures that we have taken are in line with those that have been the recommendations of the health authority in a winter context, of preventing infections, such as strengthening hygiene measures and easing social contact,” Rodeia said. “We provide a disinfectant solution in all places of public access, reinforce the information provided by health authorities and raise awareness of the importance of everyone having some restraint in social contacts.
But 19 groups, including eight South Korean, two Indonesian, one Sri Lankan, three Italian, three Spanish, and one each from Guatemala and Brazil, have canceled their visit to the shrine, citing the coronavirus outbreak, but between January and February, 430 groups have already signed up for pilgrimages in 2020.
For Holy Week (Between Palm Sunday-April 5 – and Easter Sunday-April 12) 14 groups are registered, three of which are foreigners.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdesin France announced that its pilgrimage season will begin as usual on Palm Sunday, which is April 5 this year. The shrine said that information from the French Ministry of Health and various state agencies indicates that pilgrimages can take place, with the adoption of preventive measures.
“A crisis unit within the Sanctuary monitors the situation and adapts the measurements, in connection with the Prefecture of the Hautes-Pyrénées,” said a statement on the shrine’s website. However, the baths of miraculous water, which many sick pilgrims bathe in, will be closed for now.
“The baths are a place where people are more exposed because they are bare,” the shrine said. “As a precautionary measure, the Sanctuary encourages the individual gesture of water, which consists of personally wetting one’s face and hands with the water from the Cave flowing from the fountains. The faucets are treated with viricide several times a day.”
The French ecumenical community Taizé said that respecting the recommendations of the health authorities, they ask pilgrims who are coming from an area where the virus is actively circulating not to come to Taizé within two weeks of their return.
In the United States, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., like many other churches around the country, is distributing Communion under one species only — the Host, rather than the chalice of the Precious Blood. It is also asking Massgoers to refrain from physical contact, such as handshaking, during the ritual Sign of Peace.
In Canada, the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal is reminding visitors to observe the usual precautions against spreading wintertime viruses: wash hands frequently, avoid coughing into one’s hands, etc.
“The Oratory cleaning team has already implemented additional disinfection measures, paying attention on frequently touched surfaces,” said a spokeswoman, Céline M. Barbeau. But the Public Health Agency of Canada currently puts the risk to public health from coronavirus as low for the country, and there are currently no restrictions on public gatherings, she said. “We remain vigilant and we follow the situation with the competent authorities and will apply all the recommendations deemed necessary by the experts.”
At the same time, the Archdiocese of Montréal has issued preventive measures in regards to liturgical activities, she said, and they have been implemented at the Oratory. “The main point to note is that holy water has been removed from the holy water fonts and that pilgrims will be invited to exchange the Sign of Peace other than by shaking hands,” Barbeau said. “At this stage, the pilgrims remain free to receive Communion either on the tongue or in the hand.”
An earlier version of this article said that the restrictions imposed by Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa were only for the territory of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Jericho. On Friday, he extended them for the entire territory of Palestine.