Because of coronavirus restrictions, Italian authorities permit people to go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the doctor, and to "essential" work. But if you go to a church to pray -- even with just a few people and widely separated -- you can be cited by the police and forced to disperse. Citations can be as high as 200 euros (about $220) and may involve court appearances, according to Crux, a Catholic news publication online.
Going to church to pray is not considered "essential."
Fr. Carmine Petrilli, with a parish south of Rome, told Crux that churches are allowed to be open, 'but they say people can’t go because it’s not a ‘primary need. This is what they say. But the constitution guarantees freedom of worship in every situation.'"
Recently, Fr. Petrilli held a Eucharastic Adoration hour "with 10-20 people, all spaced out in different pews inside the church to observe social distancing protocols" but the "police nevertheless disbanded the small group and issued formal citations to everyone present, meaning they could be subject to criminal procedures and fines of over 200 euros," said Crux.
The magazine also cited other cases where the police cracked down on people who were praying:
"On March 20 in Nocera Inferiore, just south of Naples, a small number of worshippers had gathered to pray in the rectory of a church in the city’s San Giovanni neighborhood with the pastor and vice pastor. Police were called by area residents, and officers came and cited the eight individuals present, including the pastor and vice pastor, all of whom could face criminal charges and a fine.
"Last weekend [Mar. 21-22] police were summoned in Naples through the 'Youpol' app to bust a small prayer gathering at an evangelical church, where all nine people present, all Nigerians with legal documents, were cited.
"In San Gennaro Vesuviano, a small commune within Naples, police last weekend also interrupted a private baptism in the city, handing formal citations to the priest, the photographer and the child’s parents and godfather."
Fr. Petrilli rejected the idea that prayer is not essential for people. "Christians are not mystics," he said. "They need help, support, a community that encourages them…they need encouragement, a word that allows them to fight, to believe, to hope. This is important.”
“Like the physically sick, and the psychologically sick who need a psychologist, this [prayer/church] is also a primary need,” said Fr. Petrilli.
The priest noted that when Pope Francis offers the daily Mass, which is livestreamed, there are several priests, religious sisters, and lay people there in the chapel, all spread out.