VATICAN CITY: Catholics criticised a cardinal's order to close churches in Rome on Friday (Mar 13) to help contain the spread of coronavirus and Pope Francis cautioned against "drastic measures".
Some took to social media to rail against the move by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, accusing him of caving in to the government. One said the move had put "Christ in quarantine".
Catholic bishops around the world were deciding how to deal with the pandemic in their own dioceses and what guidance they should give to the 1.3 billion-member Church in places from Little Rock to Lyon.
"Drastic measures are not always good," the pope said in improvised remarks at the start of his morning Mass, which has been streamed on the internet and televised live without outside participants in order to limit gatherings of people.
Francis prayed that God give pastors "the strength and even the capacity to choose the best means to help" those suffering from the pandemic "so that they can provide measures that do not leave the holy faithful people of God alone".
On Thursday, De Donatis, the pope's vicar for the Rome archdiocese, ordered the more than 900 Catholic churches under his jurisdiction closed until Apr 3.
READ: Catholic churches across Rome shut due to COVID-19
Previously, only Masses had been cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Individual bishops can decide whether to keep their churches open or closed and many are open in parts of Italy.
The pope is bishop of Rome and the cardinal is his administrative vicar. It was not clear if De Donatis had sought the pope's approval for the move.
The Italian government on Wednesday closed virtually every commercial activity in the country apart from pharmacies, food shops and other stores selling essential goods and services.
Customers must enter a few at a time, keep a safe distance from each other and wear surgical masks in some cases.
Critics say being allowed to pray in a church, albeit with precautions similar to those imposed on stores, should be seen as an essential service.
"My heart is in pieces," Father Maurizio Mirilli, a pastor of a Rome parish said on Twitter. "I have to close everything, even the church... I feel like a father whose children have been snatched from him."
"Churches closed in the capital of Christianity is a wound that will be hard for us to forget," tweeted Gaetano Strano. "The Church is independent from the state and was not obliged to adhere to government norms."