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In Italy, a priest's sermon about COVID vaccines sparked a walkout

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By Andrea Carlo
Silvia de Martini stands outside a church in Casorate Primo with a placard denouncing FatherTarcisio Colombo. It reads: "Don Tarcisio, a danger for everyone".
Silvia de Martini stands outside a church in Casorate Primo with a placard denouncing FatherTarcisio Colombo. It reads: "Don Tarcisio, a danger for everyone".   -   Copyright  Credit: Silvia de Martini

A parish priest has been slammed after allegedly using a sermon to criticise Italy's vaccine restrictions and the stigmatisation of those without the jab.

Parishioners walked out of Father Tarcisio Colombo's service in Casorate Primo – a small town in Milan’s hinterland – on New Year's Eve.

Witnesses told Euronews he criticised Rome's use of a COVID pass to push Italians to get vaccinated and the stigmatisation of the unvaccinated as "plague spreaders".

At present, Italians must show a COVID immunity certificate (“Green Pass”) to access most public spaces and a “super Green Pass” -- which only includes those who are vaccinated and who have recovered from COVID-19 -- for indoor dining and leisure activities. Churches are exempt from the current scheme.

His words sparked outrage and 20 churchgoers walked out midway through the service. One even yelled “learn to be a priest!” from the door.

“As soon as I heard him say these things, I just couldn’t take it any more,” Graziella Checchi, a 66-year-old parishioner, told Euronews. “I was one of the first to stand up, but as soon as I left the church, I turned to see a stream of people had joined me.”

Another parishioner and active community member -- who asked to remain anonymous -- expressed his indignation to Euronews.

“By preaching against something like vaccines, which are a public duty, he’s doing a disservice to his congregation," he said.

"He brandished those of us who left as people who are ‘unable to listen to different opinions’ but the pulpit is a place to speak about the gospel - not politics.”

Father Colombo has refused to speak to most media, including Euronews, although he did previously state that he would not publicly reveal his vaccination status.

This has left parishioners concerned, with some even expressing that they would no longer be taking communion.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Milan has distanced itself from Father Colombo’s comments. Speaking to Euronews, Stefano Femminis -- the head of the diocese’s press office -- asserted that “Milan’s Curia has published a straightforward decree on behalf of the Vicar General, which states that all people who have a pastoral role have a duty to get vaccinated.”

The past controversies of Father Colombo

Father Colombo’s sermon may have particularly infuriated churchgoers and ignited a national media frenzy, but it’s not the first time he has faced vocal opposition since becoming Casorate Primo’s parish priest ten years ago.

On 15 October 2019, one parishioner publicly voiced her disapproval over his homily and newsletter, in which he pilloried Swedish teen climate activist, Greta Thunberg.

Silvia de Martini, a 76-year-old artist and lifelong resident of Casorate Primo, stood outside the town church holding a placard, with the words “Don Tarcisio, a danger for everyone.”

“I protested against the disgraceful homily and subsequent article posted by our parish priest, who dared to label Greta Thunberg’s supporters as ‘sheep’, and described her as a ‘danger’,” she told Euronews. “To begin with, I fundamentally disagreed with the way he talked about a teenage girl. But, first and foremost, I believe that as Christians we should look after and care about the earth that God gave us.”

While de Martini was not present at the controversial mass last Friday, she lent her support to the dissenters.

“What they did was brilliant,” she exalted. “If I’d been there, I’d been the first or second person to get up and leave.”

The list of controversies attached to Father Colombo’s name is long. From his outspoken newsletters -- where he regularly publishes and copy-pastes articles denouncing LGBT+ rights, progressive politicians, and sex education -- to his public demeanour and closure of the parish (and town) cinema, he has been shunned by a significant portion of the local community.

“To say he’s medieval would be an understatement,” de Martini lamented. “We had a flourishing community here of around 500 involved members, that’s been reduced to a handful of people.”

Parishioners like de Martini have regularly sent letters to Milan’s Diocese to express their disapproval.

“The Diocese should have acted long ago, and the former Archbishop didn’t even acknowledge me,” she declared.

“There have been tonnes of complaints,” added the anonymous parishioner.

Nevertheless, Diocese spokesperson Stefano Femminis stated that “no complaints have been received” and that no disciplinary action would be taken following Father Colombo’s sermon.

Anti-vax priests row against the Vatican's line

COVID-19 vaccines and anti-pandemic regulations are largely popular among the Italian public: almost 90% of eligible Italians have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Nonetheless, vocal anti-vaccine and anti-green pass dissent does exist - as demonstrated by certain violent riots across the country’s major cities last October.

Such sentiment also proliferates among Italy’s Catholic clergy, resulting in a variety of public outbursts similar to those of Father Colombo.

Last December, one parish priest in the southern region of Calabria rallied against the Green Pass scheme, while in November, a priest in Sicily claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic was orchestrated “by powerful people".

In spite of this, the Vatican’s line has been unambiguously and consistently in favour of COVID vaccines.

“Being vaccinated with vaccines authorised by the competent authorities is an act of love,” Pope Francis stated earlier last year.

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