Let’s Re-Open The Churches – Here’s How … And Why

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/03/18/lets-re-open-the-churches-heres-how-and-why/

Let’s agree that the powers-that-be – the governor, the archbishop, ministers, public health officials – are trying to do what they think is best. They want to limit the spread of coronavirus so fewer people get sick and fewer people die.

When it comes to stopping access to religious services, though, they’re wrong.

Having churches open is an essential part of fighting this virus, even if some leaders in our society don’t realize it.

To be fair, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t ordered churches not to open. (He could hardly do so, given what the state and federal constitutions say about freedom of religion.) But by limiting public gatherings to 25 and not including churches among the exceptions, he has made it hard for churches to operate.

Many church leaders have responded by cancelling church services or stopping public access to them.

This outcome hurts Protestant churches, which thrive on praying together and singing together and listening in person to Scripture and preaching.

But it devastates Catholic and Orthodox churches, which center on bread and wine becoming the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ through the actions of a priest.

I’ll speak directly to Catholicism, which is the religion I’m most familiar with.

Believing Catholics believe that the consecration at the altar is not merely a presentation or a reenactment of the Last Supper – but rather that participants are mystically transported to Calvary where Jesus suffered and died on a cross to make it possible for human beings’ sins to be forgiven. All the angels and saints invisibly congregate around the altar at the time the priest pronounces the words “This is my body” and “This is my blood.”

Communion is not just a symbol of Jesus; it is Jesus. And since Jesus is God, a Catholic church is a temple that has God in His true presence.

Mass is sometimes said in Catholic talk to be a bit of Heaven on earth. When you walk into a Catholic sanctuary (in many churches through an inner set of doors), you are walking into Heaven.

Thus, to be present when God comes down from Heaven and takes the form of bread and wine is to be eligible for a waterfall of graces – to those who believe and worship and pay attention.

These images may seem jarring to those not familiar with Catholic beliefs. (Even to many Catholics, perhaps.) But there it is:  That’s what the Church teaches.

So for believers to be without access to Mass on Sundays (when it’s ordinarily required to go) or during the week (when many people go out of a sense of duty or calling) is a blight all by itself, whatever other calamities may be happening outside the church doors.

It’s also unnecessary.

Here’s how Catholic Masses could remain open to the faithful even in a time of plague.

Let’s say the maximum number of people allowed inside a church is 25. And let’s say everyone should try to stay 6 feet or more apart, as the public health experts say. It can be done.

First:  Bishops should dispense with the Sunday obligation for everyone during the emergency. Some early statements from some bishops — along the lines that people who feel sick don’t have to go – were unhelpful. It’s always the case that sick people don’t have to go to Sunday Mass, because fulfilling the Sunday obligation is a matter of conscience, and individual decisions depend in part on health and safety.

Instead, bishops should just declare that no one is obligated to go to church until the danger has passed. No one should be made to feel guilty for missing Mass under these circumstances.

Second:  Lift the limits on how many Masses a priest can celebrate in a day and ask priests to say more of them. Ask priests to limit Mass to the essentials, with an eye to speed. (I once attended a Sunday Mass during a blizzard that lasted 11 minutes. Twenty minutes is an easy standard to meet.)

Third:  Invite the faithful to sign up online to attend Mass, using a web site such as SignUpGenius. If there’s a slot available at 10:20 a.m., you get it. Once the maximum is hit for a particular slot, then a person has to sign up for another slot or not at all. Have a volunteer at the main door wearing a mask with a clipboard allowing the requisite number of people in at the proper time.

Fourth:  Designate particular spots in particular pews for people to sit. As a friend of mine said recently, Catholics already practice their own brand of social distancing – we tend to sit far away from each other. It wouldn’t be hard to designate particular seats that are 10 feet or more apart from everyone else.

Fifth:  Have a custodian with gloves standing by ready to disinfect wherever people are sitting right after they leave. (If they are able, church-goers could leave some extra money in a basket for his trouble.) People could be instructed to enter one door (keeping a distance from everyone else) and leave by another, with the new attendees sitting in their cars ready to take their place for the next Mass.

Why all the fuss?

Worcester Bishop Robert McManus was one of the last in Massachusetts to suspend public Masses. Before he did, he tried to come up with a creative way around it, and justified his efforts this way:

Please be assured that we are in communication with various state and federal authorities on this issue in order to make meaningful and prudent choices regarding how we operate as a Diocese, bearing in mind that our mission to save souls does not change while caring for the physical needs of the faithful.

That’s the point. Our bodies are important. Our souls are more important. We need Mass for our souls. And our prayers at Mass may lead to more people keeping body and soul together.

The coronavirus infection is as much a spiritual problem as it is a physical problem, and maybe more so. What’s needed in tough times isn’t fear or selfishness – it’s trust in God. Connecting with God is more important than physical health.

For those of you who don’t believe this or don’t care:  Trusting in God will keep anxiety levels down, contributing to physical health and lessening the vulnerability to infection. That alone will slow the spread.

Some cutback in activities during this time makes sense. The neighborhood block party, the learned lecture, the fun run, and lacrosse practices can all be put off to another day while we deal with this problem.

But immoveable feasts should go forward if possible, with appropriate precautions. If life is worth living, we need to try to live it. Many of us find life difficult without Mass. Going without paper towels is a lot easier.

By their exceptions to the various draconian rules, government officials are making it clear that workplaces and grocery stores and drug stores are essential even during this dangerous time.

So is church.