Give Us Mass Back, Prayer Gathering Participants Tell Cardinal O’Malley

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About 135 people sang and prayed outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston this afternoon, asking the archbishop to re-open Catholic churches.

Organizers called it a prayer gathering, not a rally. There were no speeches or signs. Instead, people sang hymns and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the rosary, two of the best-known Catholic prayers. It lasted about 35 minutes.

While keeping social distance because of the coronavirus emergency they formed a line on the sidewalk that went about two-thirds of the way around the cathedral, behind a blue ribbon. It started on Monsignor Reynolds Way in the South End of Boston, on the southwest side of the cathedral about halfway down. The line bent around the corner down Washington Street toward downtown, and curled around onto Union Park, ending just about at the rectory behind the cathedral where Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, lives. O’Malley did not appear.

Participants who spoke with New Boston Post during and after the gathering expressed frustration with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker for limiting church gatherings to 10 people back on March 23 and with Cardinal O’Malley for not pushing back.

“I am here to peacefully pray along with everyone else. In the light of everything going on, the fact that we can’t have public Mass just seems absurd,” said David Lehr, 39, of Stoneham.

The lack of access to sacraments has some Catholics feeling empty.

“We’re here because we want to get back to church. We need the sacraments. And this can’t keep going on,” said Janet Noonan, 72, also of Stoneham. “Everyone has their freedoms, and this is our freedom – to worship. And we want Cardinal O’Malley to be more of a shepherd. And we’re not going along with the government. Cardinal O’Malley needs to be morally responsible for us. It’s like the shepherd got lost, and the shepherd’s not shepherding. Spiritually we have to be fed. … We’re languishing here.”

The Catholic Church emphasizes sacraments as conduits for grace from God – particularly the commonly repeatable ones, which are confession, in which a priest offers forgiveness for sins in the name of Jesus, and the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the actual body and blood of Jesus. For the past two months most regular confession times at churches have been cancelled, and attendance at most Masses, during which a priest consecrates bread and wine, changing their substance (according to Catholics) into the Eucharist, has been severely restricted.

While Catholics can watch Mass online – from churches in the archdiocese or around the world – they can’t help noticing that after the priest says the Eucharistic prayer there’s little or no distribution of communion.

“The priest is consecrating the host, and he has nobody to give it to,” said Jack Leonard, 84, of North Reading.

The governor has said he is trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and that churches elsewhere in the world were unwitting spreaders of it earlier this year. Cardinal O’Malley, who cancelled public Masses on March 13, has said he is trying to keep vulnerable people safe, particularly the elderly and frail, who may be most at risk from the virus.

Those arguments don’t wash with the prayer gathering participants.

“People can sit six feet apart,” said Ana Maria Carvajal, of Beverly, an architect and designer. “This is a time to turn to God, ask for His blessing, and not to close churches. Churches are places for worshipping and asking for God’s mercy. People should not be kept out of them. They are the temple of God. God does not need to be quarantined. He’s here to hear us, to protect us, and to heal us.”

Lehr said he works during the day at a hardware store and at night at a liquor store, and that both places are drawing scads of customers, albeit with social distancing. He wonders why churches can’t do the same.

That was a common theme during the prayer gathering Sunday, May 17.

“I want to receive the Eucharist. I want to go back to Mass. I think we’re all capable of social distancing. We all want to go back to Mass,” said Jane Finn, 75, of Wilmington.

“I say if we can go to Walmart, if we can go to golf courses and socially distance, why can’t we socially distance in church?” said Donna Maloney, 59, of North Reading.

“Our church holds 500 people. We can socially distance very well by putting 150 people into church. … We can wear our masks, and be very obedient. It’s terrible for them not to let us go to Mass,” said Patricia McCabe, 72, also of North Reading.

Some don’t like the way they see things going in the culture at large. Several people noted, for instance, that early in the emergency the governor banned all elective surgery except abortion, which he declared an essential service.

Carvajal said freedom is at stake and so are souls.

“I’m here to show that we are united to request our right of freedom of religion – First Amendment. The issue is people die without the sacraments, while others can go freely get abortions. And that’s O.K. for the rest of society. It’s not O.K. for us,” Carvajal said. “People have complained and gone to court and gotten the ammunition stores open. Why can’t we get the places where the sacrifice of Mass happens open? That’s our ammunition against sin. If the Second Amendment is to be respected, why not the First one, which is freedom of religion?”

Some said they’d like to hear more from Cardinal O’Malley on the continuation of abortions during the coronavirus emergency.

“The silence is so loud,” said Janice Leonard, of North Reading, Jack Leonard’s wife.

Several people who spoke to New Boston Post touched on a theme Jesus uses several times in the Gospels, and which was a favorite of St. John Paul II when he was pope:  Be not afraid.

“We are all afraid of the virus, but it seems to me that’s not the scariest thing. There are ways to get around it. I think overall too many people are living in fear, and that’s no way to live,” said Lehr.

Carvajal put it this way:  “We’re here to renounce, reject, refuse fear. The spirit of fear should not be mainstreamed into the general consciousness.”

The prayer gathering also drew Rayla Campbell, a Randolph resident who is running as a Republican against U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Dorchester) in the Seventh Congressional District this fall.

Campbell said her 8-year-old daughter missed First Communion earlier this spring because of the church closures, and her daughter doesn’t understand why she can’t receive Jesus.

“It’s time for us to open up. It’s time for us to go back to our churches to practice our faith – to be free again,” Campbell said.

A spokesman for Cardinal O’Malley, Terrence Donilon, contacted late afternoon Sunday, referred questions about the prayer gathering to a statement he sent New Boston Post by email on Friday, May 15 for a story previewing the gathering. It states in full:

One of the great challenges in responding to this deadly and highly contagious pandemic is the disruption to our everyday way of life.  Our lives have changed in profound ways.  While this is a difficult time for everyone, including the Church, we are confident that we will emerge from this crisis stronger as a community of faith.  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.  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.  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.

Governor Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board is planning to release a report on Phase One of reopening public life Monday, May 18. It’s not clear how or even whether churches will be included, or how Cardinal O’Malley will respond if churches are allowed to re-open in some fashion.

The Catholic Church teaches that a diocesan bishop is the ordinary authority in his diocese – “ordinary” is another term for a bishop of a diocese – and that the bishop has the right to govern the Church locally. Mindful of what they consider the archbishop’s authority, some of the Catholics interviewed described the gathering as a request more than a demand.

“And I have the fullest respect for Cardinal O’Malley,” Lehr said. “We are just petitioning. Petitioning Our Lady to intercede for us, and hoping he does things a better way.”


[Editor’s Note:  A short video of the prayer gathering is below, followed by still photos.]


The entrance to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End of Boston drew Catholics for a prayer gathering Sunday, May 17, 2020 asking Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, to re-open churches in the archdiocese, which includes much of eastern Massachusetts. The socially distanced line stretched about two-thirds of the way around the cathedral. Photos by M.J. McDonald for New Boston Post.