ROME — One person after the next filed into the church Sunday morning, walking past a sign at the entrance that noted masks were mandatory and stopping at a hand sanitizer dispenser they were obligated to use. Then they took their seats — two to a pew, instead of the usual four or five. By 10:30 a.m., the church was nearly filled to its new, reduced capacity of 98.
“Welcome back after so much time,” the Rev. Massimo Brogi said to the faithful at the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina. “It’s a pleasure to see you again after so much distance.”
Italy’s Catholics, emerging from one of the most rigid lockdowns in the West — one that saw a historic halt to religious ceremonies — returned to Mass on Sunday, praying as they always have while also trying to understand a lengthy list of new rules.
Priests across the country filled their homilies with references to the last three months: The more than 30,000 who have died of the coronavirus, the passage of so many people without funerals, the economic suffering.
But the day was a trial run for all the ways in which religious services will look different, perhaps for months to come, in one of the world’s most Catholic countries.
At Brogi’s church, just blocks from the Vatican, there were no prayer leaflets, no choir. Pews were spaced five and a half feet apart. When it came time for a prayer, Brogi told parishioners to speak forcefully, “because masks will dampen your voice.”
Across Rome, church bells rang out all morning. People had been permitted to attend Mass in person since Monday, but for many, Sunday was the first time back. At the Vatican, Pope Francis still held Mass in private — a live-streamed event — but he later appeared in a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square to wave to and bless a trickle of people in the piazza.
Italy’s eight-week, stop-nearly-everything lockdown has helped slow the spread of the virus. But even for those people going to and from church on Sunday, there were indications everywhere that things remain far from normal. In Rome, tourist-dependent restaurants and stores were still shuttered, with signs on some demanding assistance from the Italian government. The broad, colonnade-lined street leading to St. Peter’s — designed on the orders of Mussolini — remained bereft of the usual religious pilgrims. Instead, just a few people jogged or strolled by.
Brogi’s church sits on that thoroughfare. The silent prayer, for a change, didn’t have the background noise of traffic or tourists.
Italy, like many European countries, has begun allowing businesses, restaurants and shops to reopen. But the government sparked tensions with the national conference of bishops when initial plans to loosen restrictions didn’t include a timetable for churches. The Italian bishops and the government struck a deal two weeks ago that laid out the conditions by which churches could reopen.
Among the rules: reduced capacities in church buildings, social distancing in pews, no holy water, masks for everyone.
Brogi said he had not seen parishioners balk at the rules.
“Some have actually [exceeded] what is necessary, going even farther on the safe side,” he said before Mass, as several people walked in wearing surgical gloves.
Priests may still hear confession, but not in booths.
“Always with masks on,” said the Rev. Carlo Grosso, another priest at Santa Maria in Transpontina. “When they confess, I tell them to lower their mask just a little bit so I can hear. Confession outside the booth still has its own value.” But talking out in the open, Grosso said, people don’t feel as “protected.”
Toward the end of Mass on Sunday, parishioners noticed one other thing that had changed: Holy Communion. For Catholics, this means taking a wafer, transformed during the Mass into the body of Jesus — placed by the priest in the parishioner’s hand or on his or her tongue. Amid the outbreak, Brogi explained, the latter method would no longer be an option. Wafers would be placed only in the hand. Before he and other priests went around to distribute the wafers, he made it clear he was carefully following the rules.
“As you can see, we are sanitizing our hands,” he said.
Then he moved through the pews. Some people weren’t quite sure of the protocols. Again and again, Brogi stopped next to parishioners and helped them. Yes, he said, it’s okay to briefly remove your mask. No, you shouldn’t accept Communion while wearing gloves.
After the service was over, people trickled out, some heading to lunch or walking home, others detouring toward the Vatican for some crowd-free sightseeing. Leonardo Di Pompeo, 30, said he and his girlfriend were out for one of the first times since the pandemic. He said they felt safe in a church — even after weeks of watching Masses live-streamed on the Internet.
“It’s not a particularly risky place,” said his girlfriend, Miriana Guarino, 27. “Unlike a restaurant. In a restaurant, you want to socialize. In a church, you can be alone with your prayers in connection with the priest.”
Though they live together, Guarino and Di Pompeo sat on opposite ends of the pew, as did other couples. Brogi said it was important that not even family members sit shoulder-to-shoulder, to signify the church as a place where the rules were being uniformly followed.
“It’s a time when people are looking around a lot to see what others are doing,” Guarino said. “So we’re trying to make people happy and at ease.”