I would like to raise, once again, some pressing concerns regarding COVID-19 policies – both as a citizen and especially as a priest.
Judging by the situation overseas, I think we’re headed for trouble. As many places in Europe close again, the pressure to do the same in the United States is sure to grow. The effect on many local communities and churches can again become serious. In parts of New York City and counties such as Montgomery County, Maryland and elsewhere, authorities are already executing or considering major blockades again.
The government’s intrusion into our lives has been immense. Its effects have been heinous, especially on the poor and small business owners who own and operate restaurants, bars, theaters, the travel and tourism industry, etc. There are many workers, suppliers and support industries associated with these companies.
Families and churches have been deprived of the cult at the heart of their mission and of many rites of passage and celebration that help to build and sustain them. Depression, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, delayed medical and dental treatment, divorce and loneliness have all increased sharply while in confinement.
Yes, the long blockades imposed by governments around the world have been odious and severe in their effects. The costs clearly seem to outweigh the possible benefits. And despite lockdowns and tougher mask warrants, the number of COVID continues to rise in many places.
The government’s heavy hand seems to hold all the cards. As a citizen of this country, I am deeply concerned that we have ceded our rights to government officials out of fear that far outweighs the real threat and that we have accepted mandates that do not even seem to work. I’m not saying we should give up all masks or other efforts to curb COVID, but now is the time to ask serious questions and demand real answers before governments demand the lockdown again. World history shows that we must always beware of intrusive and oppressive governments, whether national, state or local.
Based on what we know about this virus, its relatively low death rate and increasingly treatable quality, it seems far wiser to do what we have done in previous pandemics: isolate and protect the sick, the vulnerable and those known to be contagious; let others get back to work; and that life resume where human development is possible.
As for the Church, allow me the solemn warning that we cannot just do what we did before at the first stop. Here are nine things to consider if further restrictions are imposed:
1. If more blockages are threatened, we must resist them proactively, exhausting all chances of hiring officials and, if necessary, exhausting all legal remedies to the highest possible level.
2. As a first essential argument, I would ask our bishops to demand from officials clear evidence that our religious gatherings have been a source of the spread of COVID. They should seek to establish a coalition with Protestant and Jewish communities to the extent possible in this regard. Remember that we are currently following protocols which, according to the government, “allow” us to reopen and curb the spread. We complied. Therefore, proof should be required that we have been a cause of the spread of COVID.
3. If no evidence is provided by government officials, we should demand legal hearings to insist that our gatherings (with proper presumed safety protocols) are essential to our religious freedom and the care of souls in need. sacraments, instructions and spiritual healing. While some courts have reacted negatively to religious freedom arguments, others have ruled in favor of this basic right of God recognized by our First Amendment.
4. Bishops should further insist that we are not equated with bars and restaurants where people sit closer to each other and engage in face to face conversation. On the contrary, people are sitting on benches, at a social distance, while wearing masks and interacting much less.
5. Bishops should also assert that caring for souls is just as (if not more) essential to human flourishing than the food, wine, and spirits they can get in grocery stores and liquor, which these government officials call “Essential”.
6. If by any chance these approaches fail and we are again forced by law to cease public liturgies, bishops should give their clergy greater latitude to dispense the sacraments in more restricted settings, beyond Mass. Confessions should also be widely offered. The practice of some (but not most) bishops of ordering the closure of churches and prohibiting the giving of the sacraments under all circumstances was for many Catholics odious and draconian. People need the Lord. The sacraments are essential and bishops should encourage priests to creatively use every opportunity to expand them within legal restrictions.
7. For all clergy, we should limit the advice to “make spiritual fellowship”. This is good advice only for those who cannot communicate in any other way. There is no reason why we cannot give Communion outside of Mass. While some cite liturgical norms linking Holy Communion to Mass, this is only a norm and it can be twisted for a serious reason, as we already do when someone is sick.
8. Even if a new decree demands that we cannot attract a large crowd over a certain number, we must allow priests to celebrate Mass for this small number and to offer communion to others who pass through the Church in small number within a given time frame on Sunday or other designated days. But please, Bishops, do not suspend all public Masses, even if the number is excessively limited to 10 people. Mass should always be offered publicly as the Church continues to fight for more in our larger parishes.
9. Please, good bishops, fight for us! The sacraments are too important to simply cancel their availability.
Unfortunately, with the way we handled the first shutdown, many people got the message, “Your physical health is more important than your spiritual health. “ During this time, they were allowed to go to more “essential” places like supermarkets, liquor stores, bicycle repair shops, etc. Many also participated in large demonstrations and other types of gatherings.
Yes, people have understood that the Church, the Sacraments and the Sacred Liturgy are just not that critical. We had little or no answers for them and referred them to people in white coats while we waited for government officials to tell us when, with what numbers and even how we could say Mass and distribute Holy Communion. We were greatly concerned about teaching the meaning of suffering and death that the scriptures have so powerfully stated, or about calling our devotees to avoid excessive fear.
We are now seeing the bitter fruits of our failure to be with our people, in the streets and fields if necessary. Only 30% on average returned to mass. Some, for health reasons, are not yet expected to return. But there are surely many who have simply slipped away, and will likely stay away unless we reconnect with them and remind them that Holy Communion and the Holy Liturgy are essential to them.
Jesus said, “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Jesus is our manna to take us across the desert of this world to the promised land of heaven. Without this food, we perish.
Confession should also be widely available to God’s people. Churches should remain open for private prayers and small devotions. A locked church is a countersign and delivers the message, “We are not here for you now in this crisis. “
Please good bishops of the United States hear the cry of a pastor, but a pastor who has heard the cries of many of God’s people. If the government engages in further containment measures, as is happening again in Europe, fight for us. Go to court and demand proof that churches are deadly threats. Even if we lose, do all we can to keep the sacraments and the liturgy available to God’s people. Give your priests the opportunity to be creative within the framework of the law.