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People enjoy the outdoors at the Villa Pamphili park, Monday, May 4, 2020, in Rome. Italy is slowly emerging from a long, national lockdown to combat the coronavirus. (RNS photo by Claire Giangravé)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — After nearly 50 days of a strict lockdown in their homes, Italians flocked to parks and strolled the streets on Monday (May 4), the first day of "Phase Two," when the Italian government loosened some of the restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Over the weekend, the Italian Catholic bishops, after a prolonged and sometimes strained debate with local authorities, also secured a deal with the government with the hopes that by the end of May, Italian Catholics will also be able to attend Mass.

"It feels like a dream," a woman told Religion News Service on Monday, her voice muffled by a protective mask as she enjoyed a walk around the grounds of the Villa Pamphili in Rome.

After nearly three months of staying indoors, the cohesion that marked the worst of the pandemic had begun to wear off. As the "curve" of rising coronavirus cases flattened, fewer and fewer Romans joined to sing from their balconies in the evenings with neighbors, and more and more of them attempted to leave their homes, testing the boundaries of the ever-changing decrees and regulations.

Catholics, many of whom were disappointed to have been denied in-person services since before Easter, have also begun to raise questions about religious freedom as the government refused to allow them to attend Mass in the first wave of openings.

In Italy, which still has the highest death toll in Europe, small weddings and funerals are allowed, but restaurants, gyms and churches will be the last to reopen at the end of the month.

Italian bishops secured an agreement with the government over the weekend to allow churches and other houses of worship to reopen and hold religious functions while maintaining safety measures.

According to Avvenire, the bishops' official news outlet, Masses will be open to the public sometime in the last week of May.

"I express my own satisfaction and that of the bishops and the ecclesial community at large for having reached the outline of a deal, which will allow the resumption of the celebration of Mass with the people in the coming weeks," said Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, the president of the Italian conference of bishops, in a public statement.

The government initially asked that churches check those wishing to attend Mass, funerals and weddings for fever, but after the bishops objected that equipping churches with thermometers would be an "enormous challenge," the proposal was scrapped in favor of guaranteeing social distancing and a requirement to wear masks and gloves.

On April 26, the bishops' conference protested when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his government's scientific advisers refused to include Masses in the Phase Two reopening that began May 4. Two days later, in his homily at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, his Vatican residence, Pope Francis mediated the bishops' ire, asking for "the grace of prudence and obedience" to the government regulations so as to prevent the return of the pandemic.

The Italian premier seemed to appreciate the pope's intercession, noting his "pastoral charisma" in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

"He is very close to me and all of us who have institutional responsibilities, but also all the citizens who are living with the angst of losing their beloved and the restrictions imposed by this emergency."

As Italy, France and Spain, the European countries hardest hit by the virus, begin to allow their citizens to move more freely while still maintaining social distancing precautions, the new measures will likely impact how other nations affected by the global pandemic react.

For Gina Zehner and Carolina del Carmen, two students from the United States at the American University in Rome, because of this quarantine, their foreign student experience was, for the most part, "boring."

"Having started the quarantine earlier, we could prepare our family in the United States about what was to come," said Zehner, who spent the first day of Phase Two at the Pamphili Park.

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