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Finding the Jewel in a Mountain of Gray

Publisher’s note: I’ve maintained a consistent public editorial line over the past month that the most prudent course of action in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is to follow the recommendations on social distancing, even to the point of being supportive of a temporary suspension of public Masses. I have argued in favor of the availability of other sacraments, such as confession, baptism, and last rites, under reasonable precautions. Not everyone who works for 1P5 and not everyone in our audience agrees fully with the position I’ve taken, and I acknowledge that.

I recognize that there is still much we do not know, and as the situation stretches on even while new treatments are being evaluated — and threatens to do so indefinitely —  a point is coming where we will have to adapt and find new strategies for returning to many of the normal functions of daily life or risk even greater dangers. Our spiritual life is obviously a priority in this regard.

As publisher, I feel a profound responsibility to use this platform for the good, and as such, I will continue to promote what I believe, in conscience, to be the best and most prudent courses of action as pertains to the impact of this pandemic on Catholic life. At the same time, I think viewpoints such as the following, although they may be somewhat at odds with my own, deserve serious consideration as we work together to identify the best ways to preserve lives but also keep the faith and save souls. 

– Steve Skojec

Despite the government-mandated stay-at-home executive fiat with the exception of visiting your local supermarket, pharmacy, or favorite fast food chain, I decided to escape the confines of my cell to make holy hour visits to my local traditional Catholic parish. Three weeks had elapsed since I had set foot inside the sanctuary of a church, and my soul was in need of a deeper intimacy with our Lord. In order to show my unwavering obedience to my secular masters, I made sure to wash my hands before leaving, sanitize my vehicle upon entering, and observe “social distancing” measures from the moment I left my house until the moment I returned.

For my first holy hour visit to the parish, I was surprised to find several others in the pews praying their rosaries or sitting in silence, meditating on the crucifixion of our Lord. The chapel was dark, the statues all veiled, yet the faint light in the tabernacle flickered away. The occasional cough, unidentifiable and most discreet, would disturb the personal prayers for a brief second, with the slight turning of the head, but all would eventually return their attention to the reason why they came.

I expected the same chain of events on my second visit the following day. And yes, I still followed CDC guidelines to the fullest measure. I opened the main doors to the church and genuflected before I sat in the pew — only to realize I was the sole individual sitting down, for everyone else was standing. Confused, I moved my head around the person in front (six feet away from me) to discover that I had just walked into a Catholic Mass. The priest was in the middle of reciting the Gospel. I was in total shock, unable to believe what I was witnessing: a widely prohibited religious service.

Given that I have attended hundreds of Masses in the relatively short period of time I have lived on this earth, this one was unlike anything I had experienced ever before. Fortunately, I have never had to live through real religious persecution, like what our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and former and active communist regimes endured and still do. But this Mass offered a glimpse of the day-to-day trials and personal sacrifices the persecuted encounter to live out their Catholic faith.

Throughout the Mass, the main doors opened and closed, and the noticeable sound echoed within the confines of the chapel as parishioners, not knowing what they had stepped into, ever so reverently kneeled in profound adoration and thanksgiving. Some of those already inside turned their heads toward the door, wondering who the person was. I suspected a level of concern and anxiety grappling with the minds of the Mass attendees at the thought of potential agents of Big Brother, keen on and religiously devoted to shutting down non-essential services.

In a recent press conference, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a firm warning to his constituents’ religious communities: “I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend — if you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.” To clarify, de Blasio stated that the government “will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”

The German Catholic weekly newspaper Die Tagespost reported that Fr. Tadeusz Kluba, a pastor of a Polish community in Hanover, was charged with a criminal offense for opening his church for a prayer meeting where thirty to forty congregants were gathered. Fr. Kluba was confused, for grocery stores and public transportation, both viable means of spreading the novel virus, were open to the public with little or no restrictions. Furthermore, LifeSite reported that a priest of the Society of St. Pius X parish was warned and informed by Toronto police that “he could be fined for violating a provincial order restricting public gatherings because of the coronavirus.” Justifying his actions, the priest stated, “We organized ourselves to comply with the rule of 50 persons max and the social distancing requirement. Faithful had to register for Mass and we set up clear marking on the pews to keep social distancing while attending Mass.”

In response to such unwarranted restrictions on the Faith, Cardinal Raymond Burke, in a personal statement published on his website, wrote, “Even as we have found a way to provide for food and medicine and other necessities of life during a time of contagion, without irresponsibly risking the spread of the contagion, so, in a similar way, we can find a way to provide for the necessities of our spiritual life.” In an interview with the Remnant, Bishop Athanasius Schneider stated that a priest, in full compliance with its government’s health guidelines, “has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful” because a legislative decree banning public Masses is “a pure human law; however, the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls.”

I am no theologian or medical expert, but my recent experience made me realize that holding Catholic Mass is possible if the following actions are followed: parish staff regularly sanitize the most touched hard surfaces in the church, including door handles (interior and exterior) and pews; a minimum of six feet is maintained between congregants; and those sick and vulnerable remain at home out of caution. In the same interview, Bishop Schneider said, “Priests in such a situation have to be extremely creative in order to provide for the faithful, even for a small group, the celebration of Holy Mass and the reception of the sacraments.”

The latest model predicts that this pandemic, even at its mildest stage, will continue for possibly another year, while broadly dependent on how warm weather influences the virus’s steady demise. Our bishops must ask if it’s spiritually prudent and necessary to ban all public Masses and the sacraments and shut the doors of their churches for that long when the faithful are seeking, now more than ever, a return to their faith in this period of trial and human suffering. As supermarkets, restaurants offering take-out, and retail services continue to operate by practicing creative health measures in accordance with medical guidelines and precautions, so, in turn, the Catholic Church must follow the same steps to fulfill its essential mission: the salvation of souls.

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