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German archdiocese plans to cut parishes from 1,000 to 40

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2020 / 05:45 am (CNA).- A German archdiocese is pressing ahead with plans to dramatically reduce the number of its parishes despite the Vatican’s decision to block a similar plan in another diocese.

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German language news partner, reported July 15 that Archbishop Stephan Burger intends to turn the archdiocese’s 1,000 parishes into 40 mega parishes.  

In a July 14 letter to archdiocesan staff, Burger described the proposal as an “adequate response to the challenges facing our archdiocese.”

He said: “At the moment, I see no reason to make any changes to the objectives and the main features of the project.” 

The Archdiocese of Freiburg, which has almost 1,000 priests and serves 1.8 million Catholics, is located in the state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. According to official statistics published in June, 22,287 people formally left the Church in the archdiocese in 2019. 

The reorganization project, known as “Church Development 2030,” is currently being discussed in deaneries. Their feedback will result in a second draft. After further discussion, a final decision will be taken on the program by the end of the year. 

The Vatican intervened last month to stop the Diocese of Trier, located in the west of Germany near the border with Luxembourg, from merging its 887 parishes into 35 larger parishes, following a three-year diocesan synod.

The diocese said that two Vatican departments -- the Congregation for Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts -- had raised concerns about “the role of the pastor in the leadership team of the parish, the service of other priests, the conception of the parish bodies, the size of the future parishes and the speed of implementation.”

Trier diocese is now working on a new plan to address the Vatican’s objections. 

The official website of “Church Development 2030” argued that the Vatican’s concerns did not apply to the program for Freiburg archdiocese. 

“For the archdiocese, this decision of the Congregation for the Clergy currently has no consequences. According to canon 515 §2 it is ‘the diocesan bishop alone’ who can establish, abolish or change parishes; provided due process is adhered to,” it said. 

“Despite the present suspension of the implementation of the decisions of the Trier synodal assembly, we believe that neither the Congregation for the Clergy nor the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts will restrict this fundamental right of the bishop to exercise his pastoral ministry.”

Catholic bishops seek cancelation of poor countries’ debts at G20 finance summit

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2020 / 04:10 am (CNA).- Catholic bishops have urged the U.K.’s finance minister to press for the cancelation of debts owed by the world’s poorest countries at this weekend’s G20 finance summit. 

The bishops signed a letter, dated July 10, from 77 religious leaders calling on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to help “to cancel, rather than merely suspend, bilateral debt payments” amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The letter applauded Sunak for helping to secure an agreement to freeze the debt service payments of 77 countries at a G20 finance ministers’ meeting in April. 

“We now ask you to work with your fellow finance ministers at this month’s G20 meeting to cancel, rather than merely suspend, bilateral debt payments, as well as to urge the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and private creditors to cancel debt payments owed in 2020 and 2021 by these countries,” it said.

The letter, signed by imams, rabbis and Anglican bishops, cited Pope Francis’ Easter Urbi et Orbi message, in which he called for countries to be “put in a position to meet the greatest needs of the moment through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations.”

The letter’s Catholic signatories included two English bishops -- Bishop Declan Lang, chairman of the English and Welsh bishops’ department for international affairs, and Bishop John Arnold, lead bishop for environmental affairs -- and two Scottish bishops, Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway.

The letter noted that the World Bank estimates that up to 100 million people will fall into extreme poverty as a result of COVID-19 and that the World Food Programme forecasts that 130 million more people will suffer from chronic hunger by the end of 2020. 

“To insist on debt repayment in the face of the suffering caused by this pandemic would be an affront to the faith traditions that we represent,” it said.

The G20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors will take place July 18-19 in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah.

The letter, which was also signed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, concluded: “This crisis has emphasized the need to stand together and debt cancellation represents an urgent and essential means of assisting the most vulnerable communities to withstand the suffering the pandemic will otherwise unnecessarily cause.” 

“We urge you to show the ambition and leadership needed to meet this challenge.”

Public Masses resume in Scotland with ‘irksome’ 50-person limit

CNA Staff, Jul 15, 2020 / 08:10 am (CNA).- Public Masses in Scotland resumed Wednesday with a maximum number of 50 people permitted to attend regardless of church size.

The Scottish Government permitted public Masses to begin again from July 15, 118 days after they were suspended on March 19 and 11 days after they resumed over the border in England. 

Bishop Hugh Gilbert, the president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, told CNA that the 50-person limit would be “irksome for larger churches” but was subject to review.

“It is to be reviewed, I think, at the end of this month. It is certainly a limitation for larger churches,” he said.

The 50-person restriction applies to services at all places of worship, including synagogues and mosques.

Gilbert said Wednesday that Scotland’s Catholics were returning from “a long time in the wilderness.” 

“The feeling is a positive one, very much so,” he said. 

He noted that while public liturgies were suspended, priests had continued to celebrate Mass without congregations and that thousands of Catholics had followed online via livestreams. But, he said, there was “a weariness that this has gone on and on.”

He recalled that the bishops had engaged in an “intense discussion” with the government in June after it announced that pubs, restaurants, and cinemas could reopen from July 15, but said that churches could not resume public worship before July 23 at the earliest. 

He said that alongside with the bishops’ representations, many Catholics wrote to their representatives in the Scottish Parliament. As a result, the government brought forward the date for the resumption of public worship.

Gilbert, the bishop of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland, acknowledged that strict regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus meant that not all churches in Scotland could immediately resume public Masses. 

Churches were permitted to reopen for individual private prayer June 22, subject to social distancing and strict hygiene requirements.

“The difficulty has been often in the amount of detail involved in reopening churches while observing all the necessary precautions,” he said, explaining that some churches in rural areas had found it difficult to find volunteers to assist with reopening.

The latest government guidance includes a limit of 20 people on weddings and funerals, a requirement to collect worshipers’ contact details in case of an outbreak, and a ban on “singing, chanting and the playing of wind instruments.” 

Scotland, which has a population of 5.5 million, has recorded 18,368 infections and 2,490 deaths from the virus as of July 14, according to the Scottish Government.

Gilbert said that the greatest challenge now facing Scotland’s bishops was to draw the Catholic community back to Mass while promoting the unity of the Church. He cited a brother bishop who compared the process to the Gospel story of the miraculous catch of fish, in which the disciples brought a large number of fish on board their vessel without breaking the net. 

He said that, while the majority of Catholics accepted the need to suspend Masses to contain the virus, a “vocal minority” objected to the restrictions. He noted that this group had “felt the pain of not being able to receive the sacraments” and that the uncertainty caused by the pandemic was “a very difficult thing for people to pass through.”

“The real challenge is keeping the unity of the Church and bringing people back,” he said.

Catholic hermit is ‘full of hope’ after 40-day fast for humanity

Rome Newsroom, Jul 15, 2020 / 07:50 am (CNA).- A lay missionary who was fasting for 40 days in a cave outside Palermo, Italy, says he is returning to his community to share a message of peace and hope with a troubled humanity.

“I am returning with a heart full of hope,” Biagio Conte said, according to Catholic news site 

“I felt in my heart the good God who invites me to bring this message of peace and hope to this much troubled, much suffering humanity,” he explained, adding that he wanted to bring this message “so that this society can improve.”

Conte, 56, goes by the name “Brother Biagio” and has worn a Franciscan habit and sandals since the 1980s, though he is not affiliated with the religious order.

He is the founder of Hope and Charity Mission, an organization which assists the poor and homeless in Palermo. 

According to Riccardo Rossi, the spokesman of Conte’s charitable organization, the lay missionary spent 40 days in prayer and fasting in the mountains outside the city of Palermo as an act of solidarity with disadvantaged families and society’s weakest.

Conte, who is sometimes called Italy’s “new St. Francis,” returned to Palermo July 11.

In his early 20s, Conte was a businessman, following in the footsteps of his father. But after experiencing a spiritual crisis at age 26, he distanced himself from his family.

He went to live as a hermit in the Sicilian mountains for a period. After returning to Palermo, he decided to dedicate his life to the poor and homeless, whom he often lives alongside.

In 2019, the missionary went on a hunger strike for 17 days to protest against a government decision to deport a Ghanaian man who had worked for 10 years as a volunteer at the Hope and Charity Mission. 

During the hunger strike, Conte slept on a bed of cardboard boxes and his ankles were chained together, according to the Guardian. The deportation was suspended.

Conte told the Guardian: “I am equally committed to risk my own life in order to save him from an expulsion that he does not deserve because he, and many others like him, contribute every day to making Italy a better country.”

Conte also staged a 10-day hunger strike in response to the deaths of several homeless people in 2018. 

Pope Francis visited Hope and Charity Mission in September 2018 on a visit to Palermo for the 25th anniversary of the death of Blessed Pino Puglisi, who was killed by the mafia.

Rossi said that at the end of Conte’s most recent period as a hermit, Conte had sent letters and appeals to his organization urging them “to change society for the better, making just laws.”

“He has invited us not to fall into negative addictions (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, betting games, fashions which do not respect the body),” Rossi continued. 

“He invites each of us to do our part to radically change this society so as not to leave anyone behind,” Rossi said. “Let us not leave Brother Biagio alone in this battle for a better world, let each of us do their part.”

Conte’s latest appeal to the media decried violence and evil transmitted through television, computers, and cell phones. 

“We are bombarded and crushed every day by so much negative news, violence, killings, macabre facts, sexual abuse, terrible and inhuman events,” he said.

He expressed concern that the negative images and information were detrimental to children, young people, “and all those who freely and at all times see and consume and fill themselves with this bad and unjust vision and information.”

Conte also said that “all this that is negatively transmitted is garbage; it damages every individual and the whole of society.”

Polish president Duda visits Marian shrine after narrow election win

CNA Staff, Jul 14, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- Andrzej Duda visited Poland’s national Marian shrine Monday following his narrow presidential election victory.

Duda attended evening prayer at the shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa at Jasna Góra Monastery July 13 after he emerged as the victor in a run-off with Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski.

Duda, who is associated with the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), won a second term as president with 51.03% of the votes, with his challenger gaining 48.97% -- a difference of 422,630 votes in a country with a population of almost 38 million.

According to local media reports, Duda was present during the Call of Jasna Góra (Apel jasnogórski), a prayer addressed to Mary, Queen of Poland, that is recited at 9pm every evening at the shrine. 

Shrine custodian Fr. Waldemar Pastusiak is reported to have acknowledged Duda’s presence, praying: “We thank you for his presence here at Jasna Góra. We thank you for his witness of faith. On the threshold of the second term, we are giving him into Your hands, Mary, and all the matters of our homeland, believing that You will always be present with him.”


Podobnie jak 5 lat temu, tuż po wyborze, na #JasnaGóra przybył @prezydentpl Andrzej Duda. Weźmie udział w wieczornej modlitwie Polaków #ApelJasnogórski. To kolejna pielgrzymka głowy państwa polskiego do #Sanktuarium

— JasnaGoraNews (@JasnaGoraNews) July 13, 2020  

Częstochowa auxiliary bishop Andrzej Przybylski also spoke, local media noted, saying: “God bless our beloved homeland, Poland, all Poles. Bless the president of the most glorious Republic in this new stage of his national service.”

“Listen, God, to the great desire of Your and our Mother, Queen of Poland of Częstochowa, that we, her Polish children, may live in harmony and unity, that we may have God in our hearts, for only He can enable us to truly love and reconcile, to wisely bond Poland together and to spiritually revive it.”

Western media reports have portrayed the 48-year-old Duda as the favored candidate of the Catholic Church. On June 10, he signed a “Family Charter” opposing same-sex marriage and adoption, and committing himself to the “protection of children from LGBT ideology.”

But in the run-up to the first round of the presidential election, the Polish bishops’ conference sought to avoid being drawn into partisan debates.

In May, the bishops addressed a dispute about whether the election should go ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic. 

They called on lawmakers to resolve the issue while upholding the principles of Poland’s constitution, emphasizing that they were not seeking to engage in “purely political disputes over the form or timing of election, let alone to advocate this or that solution.”

The Polish bishops’ conference had published no official response to the election result as of July 14.

Duda visited Jasna Góra shortly after his first presidential election victory in 2015. He also visited the shrine in March this year to take part in prayers to end the coronavirus pandemic.

‘The situation is truly dreadful’: Church choirs struggle to survive pandemic

CNA Staff, Jul 14, 2020 / 07:00 am (CNA).- Musicians in England are warning that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to inflict lasting damage on the country’s church choirs.  

Charles Cole, the director of two Catholic choirs in London, said that children’s choirs were among the worst affected.

“The situation is truly dreadful for all singers: for professionals, their livelihood is at risk, and for amateur singers there will be an acute sense of loss. However, nowhere will the impact be felt more than in children’s choirs, which I am particularly concerned about,” he told CNA.

Cole, the director of the London Oratory Junior Choir and the London Oratory Schola, sounded the alarm last month in an article for the New Liturgical Movement website.

He noted that a nationwide lockdown, imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, had silenced the nation’s choirs. But as lockdown measures were eased, the government continued to impose strict limitations on singing, based on disputed scientific advice that the activity poses a high risk of transmitting the coronavirus. 

“Britain’s choral tradition is now under major threat due to the UK government’s proposed guidance which will make it difficult or impossible for choirs to meaningfully rehearse or perform,” he wrote.

The latest U.K. government guidelines, updated July 9, forbid group singing inside churches. Small groups of professional singers are permitted to sing outside in front of worshippers, who must also be outdoors.  

Cole explained why the restrictions were likely to have a severe impact on boys’ choirs.

“Children’s choirs are especially vulnerable at the present time, because you can’t simply put the process of growth and development on ice,” he said. 

“It’s like failing to tend a lawn, which takes years to get right, but a relatively short amount of time to ruin. For boys’ choirs in particular, the situation is exacerbated by the process of changing voices: boys only get to sing in their prime as trebles for a couple of years at most, so what many are losing under lockdown is irrecoverable.”

Cole said that online rehearsals were a poor substitute for face-to-face meetings. 

“My own choirs, the London Oratory Schola and the London Oratory Junior Choir, have had frequent and regular online rehearsals and they have maintained a rigorous routine which we hope will stand us in good stead when we resume,” he said. 

“However, it is simply no replacement for standing side by side, blending voices together and creating an ensemble sound. Choral singers are no more meant to be isolated from one another than any human beings are.”

Cole wrote to government officials emphasizing the need for urgent action, but was disappointed by the response.

He said: “Children’s choirs in many cases will face a long process of rebuilding. In my letter to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), I estimated that if the damage continues, the process of recovery could take 3-5 years for a boys’ choir like the Oratory Schola, which covers an age range of 8-18, and all four voice parts.”

“Unfortunately the form response I received from the DCMS made no reference to children’s choirs and I fear that the point was lost. Several MPs also received the same letter which failed to address the specific issues.”

Cole was among the signatories of a letter from more than 200 leading figures in the music world published in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday. It said that the work of church musicians was “under serious threat, with some professional choirs already facing permanent disbandment.”

The pianist Matthew Schellhorn told CNA that Church leaders, charities and politicians had a shared responsibility to ensure that choirs survived the pandemic. 

“The situation for musicians is dire, and particularly lamentable for those in churches, whose work has been doubly hit by the cancelations they have endured and the closure of churches,” he said. 

“There is a lack of certainty over singing in a church setting. Church leaders, charities, and government have a joint responsibility to respond to the plight of the arts sector.” 

The charity Friends of Cathedral Music and the Ouseley Church Music Trust has launched a Cathedral Choirs’ Emergency Fund, which is seeking to raise $1.3 million for cathedral choirs in need.

The two groups conducted a survey which found that many U.K. choral foundations required additional financial support to survive the next few months. 

“The U.K. is the only country in the world where the tradition of daily sung liturgy in cathedrals has been so widely maintained. This precious inheritance is now clearly at risk,” they said. 

The Church Commissioners, a body managing the property assets of the Anglican Church of England, have promised to match the funds raised. 

But choirs are likely to struggle as long as scientific advisers deem singing to be a dangerous activity. The government has reportedly commissioned new research into droplet transmission by singers to determine whether the current restrictions should be eased. But there is no indication when choral singing will be allowed to resume in churches.

Cole said: “We live in a society in which liability is everything, and no risk is deemed acceptable. Stringent measures may or may not keep us safe, and certainly the jury is still out on this. But what is beyond any doubt is the fact that they stifle and impede the ability of our choirs to sing, and indeed survive.” 

“Choirs are absolutely integral to the liturgy, which they adorn and beautify to help make it truly worthy of God. They also draw in the faithful and lead them to prayer. Our choirs are essential, and we need to prioritise their return without equivocation and without delay.”

Lourdes offers digital pilgrimage as shrine struggles without pilgrims

Rome Newsroom, Jul 14, 2020 / 06:00 am (CNA).- As global coronavirus cases have surpassed 13 million, Lourdes is offering a digital pilgrimage this week to pray for the sick on the anniversary of its final Marian apparition.

The Marian shrine will livestream the rosary in 10 languages, Mass for multiple time zones, and a procession with the relics of St. Bernadette July 16. 

Lourdes has been known as a sanctuary for the sick for more than a century. The shrine contains a spring which is said to have miraculous healing properties.

July 16 marks the 18th and final apparition at the Lourdes’ grotto in 1858. St. Bernadette said of the event: “I saw only the Virgin. I have never seen her so beautiful.”

After months without pilgrims, the sanctuary is facing a forecasted loss of $9 million and is struggling to preserve the jobs of its 320 employees, who have already shortened their hours.

Mgr. Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, rector of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, launched an appeal upon the shrine’s reopening.

“For 162 years, Lourdes has been a place of friendship centered on the poor and sick, an unparalleled school of life, service and prayer. It is a spiritual jewel that never ceases to give meaning and hope to our lives,” he said.

“The resources of the sanctuary are reliant on the pilgrims who visit the site. Without them, without their offerings and donations, Lourdes cannot exist. The sanctuary was hit by these economic difficulties just after it had returned to financial equilibrium.” 

“It is therefore a real call for help that the sanctuary is sending out to all those who love Lourdes and who consider this place to be part of our spiritual heritage.”

The Lourdes sanctuary typically receives three million international pilgrims and visitors each year, including more than 50,000 sick and disabled people. All pilgrimages were canceled during the two months that the Marian shrine was closed and safety measures and travel restrictions have limited the number of people able to visit this summer. 

“The countless testimonies and prayer intentions that have come to us confirm that the role of this sanctuary is to be a beating heart of prayer for the world and with the world,” Dumas said.

Italy predicts decline in births following coronavirus

Rome, Italy, Jul 13, 2020 / 10:37 am (CNA).- According to Italy’s national statistics institute, the country is likely to see a significant decline in the number of babies born in the period following the COVID-19 pandemic.

In their 2020 annual report, Istat, Italy’s national statistics institute, predicted that the climate of uncertainty and fear caused by the coronavirus may result in 10,000 fewer births in Italy over the course of the rest of 2020 and 2021.

The report also noted that if the predicted rise in unemployment is included in the calculating factors, it is predicted that in the worst case, births may drop to just around 396,000 in 2021 – a decrease of nearly 24,000 from 2019.

The Istat report also noted that “Italy is a country with permanent low fertility,” with birth rates continuing to decrease since the first decades of the 20th century.

In a report on Italy’s 2019 fertility rates published July 13, national data show that Italy registered 420,170 births in 2019, a historic low since Italian unification in 1861.

Continuing a 10-year decline, the birth rate among Italians went down an additional 4.5% from the previous year, for a total of 19,000 fewer births.

Italy also had a slight uptick in deaths in 2019 and the number of Italians who moved abroad rose by 16.1 percentage points.

Istat’s 2020 annual report also recorded data about how Italians spent their time during the national lockdown March 9 through May 18.

According to the survey, nearly 43% of Italians said they prayed at least once per week during lockdown. Of these, 22% prayed every day. Forty eight percent reported not having prayed at all during that period.

Pre-pandemic, Italy’s labor market was still seeing the effects of the 2008 recession, with the report noting that particularly men, young people, those with less education, and southern Italy have “not yet recovered the employment levels and rates of 2008.”

“The photograph of the pre-pandemic labor market shows growing inequalities,” it stated.

Pope Francis has several times addressed the problem of falling birth rates in western countries.

Reflecting on the challenges facing families during a Jan. 8, 2018 address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, he said it is urgent “that genuine policies be adopted to support the family, on which the future and the development of states depend. Without this, it is not possible to create societies capable of meeting the challenges of the future.”

“Disregard for families has another dramatic effect – particularly present in some parts of the world – namely, a decline in the birth rate. We are experiencing a true demographic winter,” he exclaimed. “This is a sign of societies that struggle to face the challenges of the present, and thus become ever more fearful of the future, with the result that they close in on themselves.”

Why some Catholic churches in England are struggling to resume public Masses

CNA Staff, Jul 11, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- When the government permitted churches in England to resume public Masses July 4, Fr. Rick McGrath faced a difficult dilemma. 

The pastor of St. Wilfrid’s, Burgess Hill, in the county of West Sussex, realized that in order to comply with social distancing requirements, numbers at weekend Masses would be severely limited. He decided that rather than turn people away, he would only offer public Masses on weekdays.  

“It was just a judgment call because I couldn’t bear the idea of shutting the doors in the face of people,” he told CNA July 9. 

McGrath, a native of Minnesota, explained that normally more than 400 people attend Mass on a Saturday evening and Sunday at St. Wilfrid’s, one of four locations where Mass is celebrated within the parish. But under the strict new regulations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, only 50-60 people would be permitted to attend each of the weekend Masses. 

While other parishes introduced online booking systems, McGrath felt that would discriminate against older parishioners with limited internet access. 

“I just couldn’t see any fair way of doing it,” he said. “The secretary is overworked already and doesn’t have time to be fielding phone calls and checking lists to see if you were there last week and therefore can’t come this week.”

“So I made the decision that we would try to provide daily Masses Monday through Saturday. A total of about 16, I think, we will have at various places during the week, but then have no Saturday evening or Sunday Masses at all until the situation has clarified itself.”

McGrath is not alone: other priests are struggling to resume public Masses, particularly in smaller churches away from England’s big cities. 

It is difficult to assess the scale of the problem: there are no centrally collected statistics showing how many of the country’s Catholic churches have reopened for public Masses. 

A spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales told CNA: “The decision on which parishes to open and which to remain closed for public worship is down to each diocese. Each bishop will make his own decision, largely based on size, geographical spread, among other local reasons.”

The bishops’ conference has issued detailed guidance on the resumption of public Masses, in line with principles set out by the government. Mass-goers must stand more than three feet apart and wear face coverings. Parishes are required to post a sign at the church door indicating “maximum safe operating capacity.” 

Church authorities emphasize that the restrictions are necessary in order to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of 44,735 people in the U.K. as of July 11, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center -- the third highest recorded figure in the world after those of the United States and Brazil.

But while the national picture is unclear, one English diocese has offered a glimpse of how churches are faring following the easing of lockdown rules. 

“More than a third of the churches in the diocese have opened for Mass and about three quarters of them are open for prayer,” a spokesman for the Diocese of Shrewsbury, in western England, told CNA July 9.

Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, pastor of St. Peter’s, Hove, a seaside town in East Sussex, has resumed public Sunday Masses. But he said that he understood why other parishes were unable to.

“One of the things that made the guidelines very hard to activate was the fact that you have to have two stewards on duty at any one time and neither of them can be over 70. Now, most of our volunteers are over 70,” he told CNA.

“We were very lucky in our church because we have quite a lot of people on furlough who volunteered to do it. But those people on furlough are now going back to work. As a result, it’s getting harder to find people to do it. Our church used to be open from dawn to dusk and now it can’t be.”

“But it’s quite understandable that quite a few churches didn’t have anybody to do this work for them.”

Lucie-Smith said that his parish had not been obliged to turn anyone away from its weekend Masses.

“At our place we’re taking a strict interpretation of the rules,” he said. “We are allowing 100 people in. We did not get anywhere like 100 people for any of the Masses. In fact, over four Masses we got 120 people. So we’ve not had people queuing outside the door.”

McGrath said he was monitoring the situation to see whether the regulations will change. He is also in discussion with priests in neighboring parishes.

“I know some people have started Sunday Mass with a ticketing system or to just shut the door after the number is in. And fair enough: there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

“But I do know a few priests who are doing as I am -- that is, having a daily Mass and not the Sunday Mass, pretty much for the same reasons.”

St. Paul, a miracle, and the first Christian community on the Italian peninsula

Reggio Calabria, Italy, Jul 11, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- The imprisonment of St. Paul in Rome, and his eventual martyrdom, are well-known. But days before the apostle set foot in the capital of the Roman Empire, he landed on another city’s shores -- and in one miraculous night he established the Christian community on the Italian peninsula. 

Reggio Calabria, a city on the southernmost tip of Italy, preserves the relic -- and the legend -- of St. Paul and the burning column.

In its final chapters, the Acts of the Apostles recounts the harrowing journey of St. Paul from Ceasarea to Rome in A.D. 61.

After three months on the island of Malta following a shipwreck, St. Paul and those traveling with him again “set sail,” first stopping for three days at Syracuse -- a city in modern-day Sicily -- “and from there we sailed round the coast and arrived at Rhegium,” Acts 28:13 states.

Scripture does not elaborate on what happened during St. Paul’s one day in the ancient city of Rhegium, now Reggio Calabria, before he set sail again for Puteoli, and finally, Rome.

But the Catholic Church in Reggio Calabria has preserved and transmitted the story of what happened on the apostle’s single day and night in the ancient Greek city.

“St. Paul was a prisoner, so he was brought here on a ship,” Catholic layman and retired architect, Renato Laganà, told CNA. “He arrived in early morning in Reggio and at a certain point, the people were curious that he was there.”

There is evidence Rhegium, or Regiu, was inhabited by Etruscans, who worshipped the Greek gods. According to Laganà, there was a temple to Artemis nearby and people were celebrating the feast of the goddess.

“St. Paul asked the Roman soldiers if he could speak to the people,” Laganà recounted. “So he began to speak and at a certain point they interrupted him and he said, 'I will tell you something, now that it is becoming evening, let’s put a torch on this column, and I will preach until the torch burns out.’”

The apostle continued to preach as more and more people gathered to hear him. But when the torch burned out, the flame continued. The marble column on which the torch sat, a fragment of a temple, continued to burn, allowing St. Paul to preach about the Gospel of Jesus Christ until dawn.

“And this [story] was transmitted to us over the course of centuries. The most prestigious historians, scholars of Church history reported it as the ‘Miracle of the Burning Column,’” Laganà said.

The Reggio local is a member of the archdiocese’s commissions for sacred art and the Cathedral Basilica of Reggio Calabria, which now holds the remaining relic of the “burning column,” as it is called.

Laganà told CNA he has had a fascination with the column since his childhood, when he attended a Mass at the cathedral for the 19th centenary of the coming of St. Paul, celebrated in 1961.

When St. Paul departed from Reggio, he left behind Stephen of Nicea as the first bishop of the brand-new Christian community. It is believed St. Stephen of Nicea was martyred during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero.

“With the persecution by the Romans in that period, it was not very easy to carry on the Church in Reggio,” Laganà said. He explained that the foundation of an ancient temple became the first Christian church, and St. Stephen of Nicea was first buried there. 

Later, however, the saint’s remains were brought to a place outside the city, now unknown, to protect them from desecration, he said.

Over the many centuries, different churches were built and destroyed, both by violence and earthquakes, and the miraculous column was carried from place to place. Existing documents from the 18th century onward trace its movements and the construction of the city's various cathedrals.

The section of stone column has been in a chapel on the right side of the nave of the cathedral basilica since the church was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake razed the city in 1908.

The marble relic was also damaged in one of the 24 Allied air raids carried out on Reggio Calabria in 1943. When the cathedral was hit by bombs, a fire started which left the column with visible black marks.

The city's archbishop at the time, Enrico Montalbetti, was also killed in one of the raids.

Laganà said through all this, the city’s devotion to St. Paul never waned. One of Reggio Calabria’s traditional annual processions, in which an image of Our Lady of Consolation is carried through the city, always includes a moment of prayer at the spot believed to be where St. Paul preached. 

The legend has also been the subject of many paintings and sculptures which can be found in the city's churches.

These recurring images are a sign that “the miracle of the burning column is really part of the structure of the faith of Reggio Calabria," Laganà said.

“And, naturally, St. Paul is the patron of the Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria,” he added.

“So, it is an attention which remains...” he continued. “Even if many people do not understand, it is our task to help them understand, to explain, to carry forward this part of the tradition, which can help increase the faith in our population.”

He noted that “clearly Rome, with the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul, became the center of Christianity,” but added that “Reggio, with the miracle of St. Paul, has tried to call just a little attention to the establishment [of Christianity] and continue what is at the core of the message St. Paul had.”

Photo credits: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA.