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When our churches open again...

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 02, 2020

When the pandemic crisis eases, and the world heads back into its normal routines, Catholic bishops will have some explaining to do.

Why did you forbid the administration of the sacraments? For reasons of public health— and in many cases, because of emergency government regulations— you were forced to curtail public ceremonies. But were you forced to issue a blanket prohibition? Weren’t there ways to allow some acts of public worship, with appropriate safeguards? Did you explore those possibilities thoroughly?

Just a few months ago, at the Amazon Synod, we heard pleas for the ordination of married men, based on the argument that the faithful must have access to the sacraments.

Why wasn’t the same imperative felt during the pandemic: the need to take special measures to ensure that the sacraments were available?

If the precepts of the Church are important, why didn’t you address them in your public statements? Catholics are under a solemn obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. When you made it impossible to fulfill that norm, did you assure the faithful that they were dispensed? A diocesan bishop has the authority to allow for general absolution. When you forbade sacramental confessions, did you encourage your priests to offer general absolution?

How will you coax the people back into the pews? For weeks, Church leaders have been encouraging the laity not to worry about missing Mass, since we can watch a livestream private Mass from the comfort of their homes. They have urged lay people not to worry about the lack of opportunity for confession, because we can always make a perfect act of contrition. They have been reminding the people that it is always possible to pray alone, or with the family, in the home. What will you say now, if many Catholics conclude that it must not be terribly important to come to Sunday Mass, to make a sacramental confession, to receive the sacraments?

Did you show your loving care for your people? Did you make yourself visible to ordinary Catholics? Did you lead and/or encourage Eucharistic processions? Did you issue statements of reassurance? Did you visit the sick?

The decision to shut down churches must have been agonizing; did you convey your regret in your announcements? Did your public statements have the tone of messages from a loving father rather than a bureaucratic administrator? Did you let people know that you understood their thirst for the sacraments? Did you express sympathy for priests who tried to find creative ways to continue their sacramental ministry, or did you treat them as potential rebels?

Did you bow to public pressure? If you closed churches and barred the administration of the sacraments, did you do so completely on your own, motivated by concern for your people? Or were you fearful of adverse public comment if church services continued? Did you feel pressure from the government? If so, would you ever resist that pressure?

Did you unnecessarily prohibit baptisms and weddings? In America today, a wedding almost invariably means a large public celebration. Baptisms, too, have become crowded affairs— especially in churches were the sacrament is only administered occasionally, so that many infants are baptized at the same ceremony. But from the perspective of the Church these sacraments require the presence of only a handful of people. Did you allow for “minimalist” celebrations? Did you remind the faithful that in an emergency they have the authority to baptize? And we were in an emergency, weren’t we? Otherwise your restrictive orders were unjustifiable.

Will you reopen the churches as soon as possible? All of them? If government directives point to a gradual easing of restrictions, how will you respond? Will you take every opportunity to resume the normal sacramental life in parishes?

You will probably be facing a financial crisis, having missed all those weekly collections. Will you address the deficit by closing parishes, or will you look for ways to trim the chancery staff? Which is more important to you? Which is more important to the lay faithful?

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 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: MatJohn - Apr. 04, 2020 12:16 PM ET USA

    A Socialist Mayor of the largest city in the United States threatened to permanently close all churches. Did I miss a comment from that city's Ordinary? The voice of Caesar is gaining ground at breakneck speed. God's voice on earth is frozen in fear. Whose rendering will prevail?

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Apr. 03, 2020 10:28 AM ET USA

    There you go again. Just asking open ended questions leaving interpretation open to innuendo. Really - this is the best you’ve got for a health crisis period. You are great at offering questions but there are no suggested solutions - nothing. Just keep heaping it on the Bishops without the benefit of being in their place to make their decisions. This is not a responsible presentation regardless of what the commenters have said so far. Very disappointing. Have anything practical to offer?

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 03, 2020 4:47 AM ET USA

    This is brilliant observation: "Just a few months ago, at the Amazon Synod, we heard pleas for the ordination of married men, based on the argument that the faithful must have access to the sacraments. Why wasn’t the same imperative felt during the pandemic: the need to take special measures to ensure that the sacraments were available?" The bishops' reaction to this pandemic revealed that the push for married priests had nothing to do with the so-called "shortage of priests."

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Apr. 02, 2020 6:22 PM ET USA

    Your article is spot on. I wonder if the bishops realize the awful precedence they have set in shutting down the Mass, Baptisms, Weddings and the other sacraments? Financial problems will be evident. I have already received a plea to continue to tithe via the mail. Our God deserves better than this but we are receiving what we deserve for the many years of lax teaching and weak catechist teaching. May God have mercy on us.

  • Posted by: leticia.cadiz4543 - Apr. 02, 2020 1:25 PM ET USA

    Thank you for articulating my very own concerns. At times i feel guilty questioning the appropriateness of decisions made by the Bishops/clergy , however reading your article today justifies such feelings. I pray the Holy Spirit will touch the hearts of the Bishops to open the whole church and allow celebration of the Holy Mass and reception of the sacraments.