An ambulance driver from Ernakulam Medical College wears protective apparel to help stop the spread of Covid-19 as he prepares to pick up a suspected virus patient in Kochi on Feb. 4. (Photo: Arun Chandrabose/AFP)
Police in southern India's Kerala state arrested a Catholic priest for officiating a Mass for more than 100 people after defying government orders to avoid large gatherings as a means to check the spread of coronavirus.
The priest's action and arrest came amid calls from church leaders and politicians to make all efforts to protect people from the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 15,000 people around the world.
Trichur district police arrested Father Paul Padayatti from his Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Koodapuzha village on March 23 after he took a private requiem Mass for more than 100 people, exposing them to the risk of infection.
Father Padayatti of Irinjalakuda Diocese reportedly argued with police that they had no authority to regulate Mass inside his parish church, but officers took him to the police station for violating government orders.
However, the priest was released after he apologized and promised not to repeat such actions, said Father Jijo Vakamparambil, spokesman of the diocese.
The requiem Mass was scheduled at the request of a family, Father Vakamparambil said. The priest had limited attendees to 50 but more than 100 turned up, Father Vakamparambil told UCA News.
The regional bishops' council has called on Catholics to follow government directions to check the spread of Covid-19.
Kerala's government on March 21 warned against large gatherings and suspended all festivals and big gatherings in religious places amid fears that the disease had entered its "community spread" stage.
Catholic leaders led by Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Kerala-based Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church, have asked people to cooperate with the government's efforts.
"We know the global population is in the grip of coronavirus. Among the 195 nations in the globe, 164 are affected with the virus attack. India is no exception. We, therefore, need to give equal importance to its cure and prevention to contain its spread," Cardinal Alencherry said in an audio message on March 21. "Our paramount duty at this juncture is to contain its spread."
India had confirmed 415 positive Covid-19 cases on March 23, including seven deaths.
Kerala, where India's first case of the infection was reported on Jan.30, began to report more incidents in recent weeks. By March 23, the state had reported 67 cases, second only to Maharashtra with 89 cases.
Kerala's government has not ordered a total shutdown, but shops and other establishments in the state remain closed in most parts, while most people have started to work from home.
Cardinal Alencherry urged people "not to panic" but to pray and "depend on God."
"During this period of crisis, and also later on, many will be pushed to poverty. There might be a shortage of food and other facilities, and we need to be more generous and help them," he said.
Father Antony Thalachelloor, spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Synod, told UCA News that the abrupt shutdown of business and shops had rendered thousands of people jobless, especially daily laborers and those in the unskilled sector.
"The cardinal was urging people to be more generous to help those in need," he told UCA News on March 23.
The priest said "the meaning of charity" has now changed. Walking with the sick and poor was part of the charity earlier, but now the charity is keeping away from them to protect them, he said.
"Social distancing has come as a virtue. By that, we are protecting ourselves and also others from the pandemic," Father Thalachelloor said.
The priest called on all Catholics to follow government guidelines and remain at home to avoid mass gatherings.