VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis inaugurated the full reopening of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on Monday and Catholic churches across Italy held public Masses for the first time in two months, in the latest easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Francis said a private Mass in a side chapel where St. John Paul II is buried to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the late Polish pope’s birth. John Paul II was made a saint in 2014.
The basilica, which on Friday underwent a sanitising process to make it as cornavirus-free as possible, later opened to the public for Masses by priests on other side altars after the pope had left.
Signs in English and Italian told those entering that they had to keep at least 1.5 metres (five feet) apart, wear masks and sanitize their hands.
Italy’s churches are holding Masses under strict new guidelines worked out between the country’s bishops and government.
The faithful will have to wear masks. Priests can celebrate most of the Mass without masks but they will have to wear one, as well as gloves, when they distribute the communion wafer. The wafer is to be placed in the hand, not the mouth.
On Sunday the pope urged Italians to observe the new norms “in order to protect each other’s health and the health of the people”.
But, according to an Italian reporter inside the basilica on Monday morning, at least one priest at a side altar did not wear gloves or a mask while giving communion.
The few worshippers entering the basilica on Monday morning had their temperatures taken with a scanner before being channelled into a zig-zag waiting pattern with distancing markers taped to the ground.
Inside, the bronze statue of St. Peter, whose right toes are worn down by centuries of kissing or touching by pilgrims, was roped off so they could not continue the tradition.
With few tourists currently visiting the Italian capital, some Romans saw it as an opportunity to reclaim a church they consider theirs and which many usually avoid because of the large crowds.
“Coming here was a unique opportunity. It was surreal and with the number of visitors at a minimum, the basilica was more wonderful than ever,” said Pietro Muratori.
The Vatican has not yet announced when the pope will conduct a public Mass from the main altar. His services since early March have been held in an almost empty chapel in his residence and streamed live on the internet or on television.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella, Editing by Gareth Jones)