Action Alert!

When the lights go on again

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 30, 2020

Vaughn Monroe’s 1942 classic wartime tune, “When the Lights Go on Again,” refers to the city lights that authorities ordered off to protect against enemy air raids. The lyrics were at once melancholic and hopeful. Someday those city lights will once again brighten our lives—and things will return to normal.

The tune comes to mind as the Church navigates the distressing and choppy waters of the CO19 pandemic. Churches are closed. Masses are canceled. Priests administer the sacraments as wartime rations, not the superabundant gifts we have come to expect. In God’s loving providence, what are we to make of these events? How are we to respond?

In matters of Church governance, bishops discern God’s will through consultation and prayer (Scriptures, Canon Law, etc.). They either please God or displease Him by their decisions. Regardless, episcopal directives that do not violate Church teaching and morality, even if imprudent, bind the clergy and laity in conscience.

We know God’s positive will in matters of Church governance through the decrees of our bishops. If sinful inclinations motivate a bishop—sloth, cowardice, selfishness, etc—God may permit an imprudent edict. The same ill-advised decree—as long as it is not sinful in itself, or otherwise does not violate Church law—expresses God’s provisional positive will to the priests and people who receive it. But the bishop remains accountable before God. Hence a sinful or imprudent bishop fails God when he formulates an ill-advised decree. But when the faithful respond with obedience, their obedience pleases God.

Lawful obedience to Church authorities does not restrict freedom, but directs our actions and liberates consciences. We may receive disappointing directives governing the life of the Church with mixed emotions. On the one hand, we may disagree and may have the duty to respond with reasonable objections. Nevertheless, the decree provides clarity for purposes of conscience.

A proper understanding of obedience to the lawful authority of one’s bishop also helps to mitigate bitter political meddling within the Church among Catholics. It is always holy to encourage bishops to please God by seeking justice and charity in their governance. So we have a right to express our views respectfully to our bishops (and priests, for that matter), and bishops should courteously respond. But when we acknowledge that God chooses bishops (endowed with the fullness of Holy Orders) to mediate his will (often imperfectly), that awareness takes the bitter edge off of our politicking.

When a priest (who participates in the authority of his bishop) receives a lawful decree from his bishop concerning the life of the Church, he can be confident he knows the mind of God—in terms of the practical application of faith—in these specific circumstances. If the decrees violate God’s will in terms of prudence, the priest is not accountable; the bishop is. The priest’s compliance brings peace of soul, perhaps after registering reasonable objections or suggesting respectful alternatives to his ecclesiastical authorities.

The response to the current pandemic illustrates the grave responsibility of bishops and the virtues of clerical and lay obedience. Most of the bishops of the world have privatized the Mass to reduce contagion. They have directed their priests to celebrate private Masses, sine populo—without the presence of members of the faithful. Are the bishops serving the common good in good faith? Or are they surrendering their episcopal authority to secular authorities, and neglecting the sacramental needs of the faithful?

In the current crisis, God has reduced the celebration of the Masses by his positive will (if the bishops responded with competence and virtue) or his permissive will (if the bishops failed through incompetence or sin). Regardless, through the bishops, God has revealed His positive will to priests who are obliged to respond with obedience. (Alas, obedience can also be a holy refuge for cowards.) In this situation, the people are hapless bystanders.

God speaks to us through the Scriptures and the Church, including the lawful (however flawed) decrees of bishops. He also speaks to us through the events of our lives. The virtual shutdown of the Mass around the world is a stunning revelation. Ill-advised or not, the fact remains that most Catholics no longer have access to Holy Communion, the Bread of Life. The reality is worth pondering as we await the response of the bishops when the lights go on again.

Why did God permit such evil? Did the external structure of the Faith collapse because too many people abused or obstructed God’s grace? How did I treat Mass? How many times have I missed Mass without a sufficient reason? Do I appreciate the gravity of the sin, or do I habitually presume God’s mercy? How reverently did I receive Holy Communion? Was I indifferent to the sacrilegious reception of Communion?

When the sacramental lights go on again, how do I intend to receive Holy Communion? Will I attend Mass, making it business as usual? Will I remember this melancholic time to renew and deepen my devotion to Jesus and His Church? Or am I without sin (like innocent children) and suffering with Jesus on the Cross? Do I care?

Bishops and priests face the same questions and more. Have I celebrated Mass reverently, without liturgical abuse? Have I used the Mass to entertain and feed my narcissism? Bishops have directed their priests to deny Communion to most of the faithful during the pandemic for reasons of physical health. When the lights go on again, will they use the same authority to deny Communion to “manifest grave sinners”—such as pro-abortion politicians—for purposes of spiritual health?

This Lent, we have joined the Israelites in exile as we ponder their lament: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” (Psalm 137:1) Now is the time of sorrow, reflection, a personal moral inventory, and repentance—with an enduring hope for bright days ahead in Jesus.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: theabea7789996 - Mar. 31, 2020 8:30 PM ET USA

    Washington post quoted nyc mayor: churches that hold services will be permanently closed down" really makes me see red. His term can't end quickly enough for me.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Mar. 31, 2020 3:44 PM ET USA

    To try to answer the last question posed in your penultimate paragraph: no, the bishops will not withhold the Eucharist from manifest grave sinners like pro-abortion politicians. Most bishops behave like men of their times, who don’t really believe in the primacy of spiritual health or the unique truth of the One True Faith. This is a defect that we desperately need to fix.