Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Wanted: spiritual leadership during a medical crisis

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 23, 2020

Over the course of this past weekend I heard of several different ingenious schemes, concocted by energetic pastors, that would have allowed Catholics to attend Mass without violating “social distance” or government regulations. In every case the plan was vetoed by the diocesan bishop.

Yes, I understand that bishops are concerned about the possible transmission of a deadly virus— but so are the pastors who invented ways to allow parishioners to worship in small groups, standing 10 or more feet apart. Yes, I understand that we all have a moral obligation to obey government regulations that are issued for the sake of the common good— but these schemes would have fallen within the scope of the existing regulations.

Why is it that at a time when many pious Catholics are begging for a chance to participate at Mass, and many conscientious pastors are willing to oblige them, our bishops are steadily pumping the brakes?

“My number one priority as your archbishop is to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, told his people. But that’s wrong. So clearly wrong, in fact, that it’s disturbing to see that sentence attributed to a bishop of the Catholic Church, whose number-one priority, always and everywhere, is the salvation of souls. The spiritual safety of the people is a bishop’s primary concern; everything else is secondary.

How can a bishop serve the spiritual needs of his people at a time when a pandemic makes gatherings risky? Some obvious possibilities have been honored in the breach, as one American diocese after another has closed down services.

  • He can make it clear that the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice— which is absolutely necessary as the duty of Christ’s Church— will continue each day, even if lay people cannot attend.
  • He can tell the faithful that they are released from their obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. (In many dioceses today, the faithful have not been told that they are released from that obligation— only that they are barred from fulfilling it!)
  • He can make provisions for sacramental Confessions— out in fields or parking lots, as circumstances require— and/or he can inform pastors that they have the authority to give general absolution during this time of crisis.
  • He can encourage Eucharistic processions, Benediction, and other public forms of public prayer, if they can be arranged to preserve social distance. Better yet, he himself can go out onto the streets to encourage his flock in prayer. Follow the example of Bishop Strickland; bring the Blessed Sacrament to a busy intersection.
  • In short he can work to reassure the faithful that he is doing everything possible to make the sacraments available to the laity whenever and wherever it is possible, to resist the insidious popular notion that the life of the Church is “non-essential.”

The ESPN network reports that Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), is already planning how the league might resume its schedule. It won’t happen soon, but when the time comes, and games can be held safely, the NBA will be ready. Professional basketball games are obviously not essential, but scheduling them is Silver’s job, and he takes it seriously. I hope and pray that our bishops are being equally diligent: using this period of enforced quiet to plan with their priests so that the sacraments can be administered as widely as possible during this emergency, and the normal work of the Church restored as quickly as possible when the crisis passes.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Mar. 31, 2020 3:58 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil, for mentioning Abp. Gregory’s wrongheaded words about his “first priority” being the physical health of his flock. My local Bishop made an identical statement around the same date. As soon as I read it, I thought “hey, that’s not right!” But until catching up with your essay today, I knew of no one who was reacting the same way.

  • Posted by: filioque - Mar. 23, 2020 10:41 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: Pointmaster1386 - Mar. 23, 2020 5:42 PM ET USA

    Not having daily Mass for the Lay Faithful is not Placing Christ 1st. I did not place Christ 1st prior to the coronavirus pandemic and did not attend daily Mass. Now, I have no Mass at all! Now the whole world is on equal footing to Meditate and ask Jesus for to help my shortcommings. To Repent and believe in the Kingdom of God that will come.