Silence: closed churches and mixed messages

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 09, 2020

A great silence spreads over the Christian world each year on Good Friday, to be broken by the explosive joy of the Gloria at the Easter vigil. But this year the silence has been with us already for a few weeks, with churches closed and public liturgical celebrations banned.

Many zealous pastors have tried to fill the void with drive-in liturgies and livestreamed private Masses. God bless them for those efforts. But they aren’t the same. A car is not a sacred space, and for anyone who believes in the Real Presence (see Father Pokorsky’s comments on that topic), pixels on a screen provide a comfort but not a substitute.

Yet when some of us have chafed at restrictions and urged bishops to make the liturgy more accessible, we have been chastised, described as “irresponsible,” and—in a rhetorical tactic that I consider irresponsible—blamed in advance for deaths.

Let me set the record straight. No one that I know has recommended that we ignore the danger of CO19. Those of us clamoring for the sacraments have acknowledged that there must be some prudent restrictions. We ask only that our pastors examine each proposed restriction carefully, to see if it is really necessary, when weighed against our need for (and right to) the sacraments.

Gerard Nadal, a microbiologist, has offered a sensible rundown of what might be possible. He concludes that the distribution of Communion cannot be done safely. But in a typical parish church dozens of people could attend Mass without violating “social-distance” guidelines, and in some of our cavernous cathedrals that number could safely be multiplied. Pastors could be allowed to schedule more Masses to ease crowding. Disinfecting pews between services would be a simple task. It is absurd to suggest that a church is a more dangerous venue, in terms of contagion, than a grocery store or a take-out restaurant.

As for other sacraments, it takes only a bit of imagination and preparation to arrange a confessional system in which priest and penitent are the prescribed six feet apart. And priests in suitable protective garb can anoint hospital patients without unduly endangering themselves or others. We have come to expect that every wedding will be an extravaganza, but in fact the ceremony only requires a couple of witnesses. Baptisms and funerals, too, could be scheduled without violating orders against meetings of ten or more people.

There is a way. The only question—the question that the faithful are asking—is whether there is a will.


The Pontifical Academy for Life has released a 3,400-word statement on the CO19 epidemic, entitled “Global Pandemic and Universal Brotherhood.” The document runs on for 2,743 words (by my computer’s count) before there is any mention of God, Jesus Christ, the faith, prayer, or any other distinctively Christian theme. The final half-dozen paragraphs do offer some useful spiritual reflections. But to reach them the reader must plow through seventeen earlier paragraphs of unremarkable and unoriginal observations. In a world already awash with a surfeit of analysis of the epidemic—much of it amateurish if not downright misleading—I doubt that many readers will have persevered that long.

“In any case, it is painfully obvious that we are not masters of our own fate,” the Academy rightly remarks. From that promising premise, however, it takes five pages to reach the conclusion that a proper response is prayer.

At times, indeed, the Pontifical Academy seems to be deliberately avoiding the religious perspective that would make this document different. Introducing the topic, the Academy announces that it is dedicated to “a search for the best possible humanism.” (Humanism?) Later the document reads: “Even though our life is always mortal, we have the hope that such is not the case with the mystery of love in which life resides.” Maybe that sort of language is designed to put non-Catholic readers at ease. But no one who is hostile to the Catholic Church will be looking for guidance from a Pontifical Academy.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 11, 2020 10:53 PM ET USA

    Our Blessed Mother at Fatima, Akita, and America (Our Lady of the Americas) spoke clearly that God allows for wide suffering as the punishment of sin, particularly the sins of impurity. She also spoke about the destructive forces that would enter the Church, and especially infect the priests and bishops. This virus from the communists in China finds its spiritual origins from our own Vatican who betrayed the poor Chinese christians. As Clement VII, may it publically repent of its betrayal.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 10, 2020 3:07 PM ET USA

    The preeminent importance of the Sacraments appears to be lost with too many of the shepherds of souls. Holy Communion could be distributed with a white cotton glove, without priest touching the consecrated Hosts directly or touching the recipients, and the glove be washed reverently after Mass, in the same way as the purificators and corporals are washed.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Apr. 10, 2020 12:34 AM ET USA

    Holy Spirit Church in Huntsville AL has confessions three days a week and abides with social distancing guidelines. Our Bishop called for communion outside after Mass today but canceled due to pushback by his priests.