Catholics Plan Gathering At Cathedral To Ask Archbishop To Open Churches

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Boston-area Catholics frustrated with the lack of Mass and confession are planning to gather outside the cathedral this weekend to call upon Cardinal Sean O’Malley to re-open the churches.

Organizers are inviting all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston to come for what an organizer describes as “a peaceful, prayerful gathering” at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 17 at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End of Boston.

“We all miss the sacraments, and we think it’s about time to open up the churches to worship in,” said Anne Kane, one of the organizers, in an interview Thursday with New Boston Post. “It’s our right. And during this time especially we need to be in churches praying.”

Kane is listed as the contact person on an email message making the rounds on the Internet. She said no organization is behind the effort, but rather a group of Catholics fed up with going nearly two months without Mass and the Eucharist.

Cardinal O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, on March 13 ordered churches to close as coronavirus was growing sharply in Massachusetts. The state’s other three Catholic bishops – who lead the dioceses of Fall River, Worcester, and Springfield – have also prohibited public Masses since around mid-March.

Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said Catholic church officials are preparing the way to gradually re-open churches once the threat from coronavirus is diminished to the point where it’s considered safe to be in church again.

“We very much want to resume public Mass and gatherings as soon as it is safe to do so. The Archdiocese currently has a team of priests, deacons and the laity working with parishes to devise a phased-in plan for resumption of public Masses as soon as it is determined safe,” Donilon said in an email message to New Boston Post.

Cardinal O’Malley has said keeping the churches closed to the public is necessary given the coronavirus emergency.

“As a people, community and as a nation, we’re being forced to a stance of social distancing to ward off a potential health disaster,” O’Malley said in a video posted before Easter on the archdiocese’s web site. “… What is being asked of us is for the common good, to protect the most defenseless among us.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order on March 23 limiting most gatherings to 10, including what the order calls “faith-based” events. The order does not include church as among the essential activities allowed to continue during the emergency.

The order is set to expire on Monday, May 18, but during recent press conferences the governor has shown no inclination to authorize churches to re-open in the foreseeable future.

For legal underpinning for his coronavirus executive orders, the governor has cited the sweeping emergency powers described in the state’s 1950 civil defense statute.

Yet some have questioned whether his order limiting church services is constitutional. Some are inclined to test it.

A Baptist pastor in Worcester has held five church services in recent weeks over the governor’s limit, which have drawn a fine and an application for a criminal complaint from police. Yesterday, the pastor sued the governor in federal court, asking the court to overturn the governor’s executive order on the grounds that it violates the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

About 400 clerics in Massachusetts, most of them evangelical and fundamentalist pastors, have signed a letter calling on Baker to define church as essential and to allow churches to re-open under certain guidelines.

Only a handful of Catholic priests have signed the letter. The official Church position so far has been to follow the government’s lead, while offering spiritual services remotely.

Many parishes are offering Masses online so people can pray and follow along at home, as is the archdiocese’s television station.

“In the weeks since public Mass was suspended parishioners have turned to CatholicTV and local parish live streaming to participate in the Mass, marriage preparation and other programs that are offered to the faithful,” Donilon said in an email message.

Yet without being able to go to Mass, Catholics can’t receive the Eucharist or witness the celebration of the Eucharist.

The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Jesus, whom Christians worship as God. Mass, which includes the liturgy of the Eucharist, is the central prayer of the Church.

The Church also teaches that a priest hearing a confession has the authority to forgive sins in the name of Jesus.

Confession has been hard to come by during the coronavirus emergency. Parish priests in Waltham, Marlborough, and Chelmsford have offered drive-by confessions in church parking lots in recent weeks. But most regular confession times have been cancelled.

Church officials say they’ve done what they had to do, given the situation.

“We have a responsibility to do our part to keep people safe and to help mitigate the spread of the disease, which is why the Archdiocese is committed to working in collaboration with public health and local officials,” Donilon said.

O’Malley has recommended that people pray the rosary, and he has noted that priests are continuing to celebrate Mass privately.

“Although we cannot celebrate public Masses at this time because we wish to follow the directives of the government, I want to assure all of you that we your priests are offering Mass each day for all of you. You are all spiritually united in these Masses, where we pray for the living and the dead,” O’Malley said in the video posted during Lent.

Critics have suggested that the Catholic bishops are being too accommodating toward government officials.

That includes C.J. Doyle, president of the Catholic Action League. Doyle told New Boston Post on Thursday that he was aware of the planned prayer gathering at the cathedral, but that he doesn’t know the organizers of it.But he said he can understand why they’re doing it.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, when local government authorities in some parts of the country ordered churches closed, he said, Catholic bishops protested against it.

“But here it’s a kind of unseemly sycophancy that our prelates have toward the civil authorities. They seem to be eager to close the churches,” said Doyle, who has often expressed dismay with decisions the archdiocese makes. “It appears that they’re trying to curry favor with the government and the media. They don’t seem to be concerned about the suffering of Catholics.”

Governor Baker has argued that it isn’t safe for large numbers of people to attend church because coronavirus is thought to have been transmitted during religious services in countries that were hit hard before the virus appeared in large numbers in the United States. He has also noted that many church-goers are over 50, and therefore may be more susceptible to coronavirus than younger people.

Kane, one of the organizers of the planned prayer gathering at the cathedral, isn’t buying the safety-first argument. She said people understand how to maintain social distance and take other health precautions.

“The faithful parishioners who go to church are smart enough to be safe about it. We will keep a distance,” Kane said.

She noted that while churches are ordered to stay closed to the public, other facets of public life are continuing, because the governor has declared them essential – unlike church.

“Stores are open. Planned Parenthood is open,” Kane said. “So why not churches?”