In this file photo taken on May 18, 2019, Matteo Salvini holds a rosary as he gives his speech during a rally organized with leaders of other European nationalist parties, ahead of the May 23-26 European Parliamentary elections, in Milan, Italy. Salvini — a divorced father of two children by two different women — kisses rosaries, invokes the Madonna and quotes St. John Paul II at political rallies in a bid to rally Italian Catholics behind his nationalist message. (Credit: Luca Bruno/AP)
ROME — In a grim sign of the times, a man entered a parish church in Italy’s coronavirus-ravaged north over the weekend and threatened the pastor, demanding money. In a typical robbery, the thief would have worn a mask and gloves; this time he deliberately had neither, implicitly threatening to infect the priest if he didn’t pay up.
The man eventually was captured by police, but the climate of fear his attempted shake-down illustrates has proven far harder to arrest.
Against that backdrop, Pope Francis yesterday opened perhaps the most unusual Holy Week of all time. With Easter just days away, debate continues to swirl about how accessible churches and pastors should be on the holiest day on the Christian calendar — and, for that matter, whether Easter ought to be celebrated next Sunday at all.
Despite that, polarizing Italian politician Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party, called in a television interview Saturday for churches across the country to be open for Mass on Easter Sunday, saying it would be a chance to entrust the struggle against the coronavirus to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The populist Salvini is well-known for invoking Catholic symbols, including praying his rosary of the Madonna of Medjugorje during sessions of parliament and brandishing it at political rallies, despite routinely clashing with church authorities and Pope Francis over issues such as immigration.
His proposal to open churches for Easter brought swift reaction, including priests who took to social media to express opposition.
A different proposal wouldn’t open churches for Easter ahead of a green light from health officials, but rather delay Easter altogether until that green light comes.
A number of Italian priests and clergy have reacted with interest to a call from the Rev. Kwabena Opuni Frimpong, a Presbyterian and executive director of the Alliance for Christian Advocacy for Africa, for churches in his native Ghana to set their own date for Easter this year at the end of a four-week national lockdown imposed by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo.
The idea is that because Easter is already a movable feast, varying each year according to the lunar calendar, in principle it could be delayed until conditions allow for people to return to church.
Supporters of not celebrating Holy Week under quarantine cite a 1988 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Paschalis sollemnitatis
, which held with regard to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday: “Following a very ancient tradition of the Church, on this day all Masses without the people are prohibited.”
They also appeal to the Old Testament’s 2 Chronicles, chapter 30, which describes a decision by the King Hezekiah of Israel and his assembly to delay celebration of Passover by a month because “the priests had not sanctified themselves in sufficient numbers, and the people were not gathered at Jerusalem.”
“What sense does it make to celebrate Easter without the people?” said Father Gennaro Matino, a well-known priest and theologian from Naples.
German Jesuit Father Ulrich Rhode, however, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Gregorian University, is dubious.
“Theoretically it’s possible, but we don’t know the future of this epidemic and you can’t take for granted that it’ll be over by May or June,” Rhode said.
Practically, Rhode said, a postponed Easter also would mean an extended Lent, “which would create problems from a liturgical point of view.”
“Besides which, it should be said that Easter celebrates the risen Jesus, which is valid even in dark times such as this — in fact, maybe in such cases it’s truly a feast of consolation,” Rhode said.
While a back-and-forth about delaying Easter may continue, there’s no evidence Pope Francis is considering it.