I hope you’ve entered the great mystery of the Catholic Bishops’ suspending public gatherings at Mass and closing churches because of Covid-19. Join me here. The latest update is May 9, 2020
3rd Sunday Of Lent, March 15
When I saw the March 14 and 15 Mass cancellations notice posted to the doors of Assumption Church in the hamlet of Assumption, Ontario it hurt. Beginning with no public attendance at Sunday Mass, then weekday Mass, accelerating to the closure of all public gatherings deemed “non-essential services” by government authorities it just got worse from the initial announcement.
March 23, 2020: To further contain the spread of COVID-19, the Ontario Government will order the mandatory closure of all non-essential workplaces effective as of Tuesday, March 24th at 11:59 p.m.
Liquor stores are open since they are classified as an “essential service.”
Craig Janes, director of the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health, spoke on March 24:
“This isn’t the time to be moralistic about this,” Janes said. “There are people who do depend on alcohol, for better or for worse, and we don’t want to put them in a position where they’re putting pressure on a system that’s already at capacity.”
Booze we can get, but the Holy Eucharist, our medicine of immortality and antidote to death is the first to be taken away.
I felt betrayed by our bishops, the shepherds I looked to for some kind of dialogue with our government, some kind of response to a government that sees the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as dispensable.
Following the decree from Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, Toronto Archdiocese bishop Cardinal Collins immediately responded to his priests:
“In view of the increased restrictions on public activity, I am now asking you to close your church and any chapel, even for individual prayer, effective immediately.”
Here at Holy Canadian Martyrs Church in Combermere, Pembroke Diocese, Fr John Lacy initially moved the Blessed Sacrament from the small chapel to the Church where we could gather, maintaining the necessary distance from each other. There was no daily Mass available, of course, so this solution gave us a great way to gather and continue praying before our Lord. However, Kingston Bishop Michael Mulhall, soon after, closed the doors of all Churches in the Pembroke Diocese. He makes decisions for Pembroke until a new bishop is assigned.
Help me, Blessed Mother, in this hour of disappointment not to be discouraged, and angry. Help me to welcome this great trial in whatever way it engulfs me. Help me to live your Word in Sirach:
Accept whatever happens to you; in periods of humiliation be patient… Trust in God, and he will help you; make your ways straight and hope in him. (Sirach 2:4-6)
It would be easier for the world to live without the sun than without Holy Mass.
–St Pio of Pietrelcina
5th Sunday Of Lent, March 29, 2020
Day to day with the bishops’ decision has been one of the great trials and blessings Christ has given me. He’s been chipping away at my disappointment, gradually drawing me closer to Him as He is doing to every soul who is willing to respond to His mysterious call.
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. In every cathedral and church, the Gospel has been proclaimed: Jesus raises Lazarus from death back to earthly life at Bethany. Martha loved Jesus knowing He would have stopped her brother from dying if he got there on time. She boldly chided Him for arriving four days too late. Even with such faith, she objected when Jesus commanded the grave be opened; she warned Him of the smell of the dead body, showing a lack of confidence in Christ’s power. Jesus looked at her saying, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God.”
Archbishop Lori in his live-streamed Mass homily from Mary Our Queen Cathedral said Martha’s faith, like ours, is faith in progress, adding that in this harrowing trial we must grow deeply in trusting Jesus. He told us that while we strive to be freed from the “grip of the coronavirus” we do not want to return to our former way of life. Instead, the Lord is using this Covid-19 threat to draw us into a new life with Him in the same surroundings, one marked by unwavering faith and trust in Him.
Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
As we carry the heavy cross of living without the Eucharist through Lent, it’s easy to feel abandoned by the bishops who yielded to authorities who see Mass as a “non-essential service”. From the moment of the Church’s birth at the Passover meal with the Lord, the Eucharist has been the summit of the Christian life. St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in the first century said the Eucharist is our “medicine of immortality, the antidote to death.”
“Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (John 6:53)[/pullquote]
How, then, can we accept our shepherds’ yielding to public officials who reject the necessity of our attendance at Mass? However, we have to accept this as God’s will, allowing the bishops to be silent before the world’s governments. The unity among the world’s bishops to close the doors of every church in the world is mysteriously revealing of God’s presence in this pandemic, however wrong it seems.
As I lived and prayed through anger, sadness and betrayal, I’ve also been moved toward God’s wisdom which is both tangible and incomprehensible. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). I don’t know if he agrees with their decision, but it’s obvious he’s using it to unite the Church in prayer and adoration in ways never before accomplished. EWTN celebrated the anniversary of Mother Angelica’s death, March 27. She, the queen of the globalization of Catholic broadcasting, ends up in the middle of the pandemic. It seems pretty Providential to me.
Attendance at Mass online has been growing according to most reports. Ellen Teague writing for The Tablet said parishes in England and Wales are reporting a surge, with some Catholics returning for the first time. Parish priest Rob Esdaile told her weekday Mass attendance moved from 10-20 to over a hundred live-streamed. The Pope’s “virtual parish” has been very popular as well. And his unequalled March 27 Urbi et Orbi, drew the entire world into prayer electronically to an empty St. Peter’s Square. Aletia has more on its significance.
I felt a unique union with thousands everywhere in the world praying in this extraordinary way. I’ve also been ‘celebrating’ Mass at different Cathedrals hoping to do so with the bishops who made the painful decisions. St. Michael’s Cathedral in my hometown Toronto, St. Andrews in Scotland, Vancouver’s Our Lady Of The Holy Rosary, and the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore are favourites.
‘Participating’ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ‘at’ The National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception, Washington every Sunday has been a huge gift. I encountered our Lord in a way I never imagined, Adoration, Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet happen after Mass.
Our Lord comes to us, yet experiencing his unique presence while electronically watching the consecration is not a substitute for receiving him sacramentally even though whenever and however he comes everything is okay, for he is our everything and he soothes our sorrow. He is taking the Church through this ordeal as he has done in every era whatever the crisis has been.
Consider this message from Monsignor Walter R. Rossi, Rector of the National Shrine on having to close its doors.
“This was a difficult decision because we know that the faithful rely on Mary’s Shrine for the peace and solace that is found in this sacred place. Still, we also recognize that we must listen to scientific and medical experts and do our part to help prevent the spread of this virus. The decision to close the doors to Mary’s Shrine was made not out of fear, but out of concern, trusting that Our Lord and His Blessed Mother will use this action to protect Shrine staff and visitors. We encourage everyone to heed the advice of Church and government authorities while placing our trust and hope in God. We encourage everyone to heed the advice of Church and government authorities while placing our trust and hope in God.
We encourage everyone to heed the advice of Church and government authorities while placing our trust and hope in God.
His words moved me, making me docile in my exile from the Blessed Sacrament.
An experience I had years ago guides me through the intense loss of the Bread of Life I feel every day. At our annual Renfrew Catholic District School Board staff gatherings in Pembroke, we launch the day with Mass at the Cathedral with the bishop. One year the coordinator asked me to be an altar server.
I had the responsibility of holding the bowl water bowl for the bishop to wash his hands. As Bishop Michael Mulhall dipped his hands in the water saying, “Wash me, O Lord, and cleanse me from my sin” I felt a strange unity of bishops take place as if somehow I was hearing every bishop in the Church’s history saying those words, beginning with the apostles. In a brief moment, I felt time vanish. I’ve never forgotten that precious gift.
We cannot survive very long without the Bread of Life, though, so Providence will determine the time when we’ll return to the altar of sacrifice. When that time comes the bishops will inevitably face a showdown with governments who have notoriously opposed the Church’s defence of life along with pretty well every other moral teaching. After all, to say that the service of feeding the world with the Holy Eucharist is a non-essential service is grave blindness which the bishops and every other catholic must deal with at some point whether on the street at a safe distance or across from a negotiations table.
May we never hesitate to turn to Mary. She will take us by the hand straight to her Son’s consoling and merciful heart who has complete authority in this tragedy. In so doing we have nothing to be afraid of in this unparalleled and universal experience of living without the Eucharist. As Charles de Foucauld once said, “Jesus is the Master of the impossible.”
“One thing I request of you, Your Grace, is to give us all the spiritual help we need. If we have our Lord in the midst of us, with daily Mass and Holy Communion, I fear nothing for the Sisters nor myself; he will look after us. But without him, I cannot be — I am helpless”
—St. Teresa of Calcutta
First Week Of Easter, April 13
There’s something deeper going on than simply a prudent decision from the world’s bishops to obey government sanctions to keep us away from Mass, therein preventing the coronavirus from spreading. That deeper is in God’s incomprehensible mind and revealed through his Church. I think the bishops are moving closer to the front stage as the Eucharist gets more attention than the coronavirus.
Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins, in almost every homily, refers to the decision as an act of charity to protect each other, yet he grieves when he speaks of our being physically separated from the Lord at Mass. At one point in his Easter Vigil homily, he said, “until we see him face to face at the moment of our death,… the way we most fully encounter him is in the Holy Eucharist. His face and words never stray from showing how terrible it is to be absent from that encounter.
We’ve heard in the Easter readings how the Lord showed up, transforming unbelieving, disheartened disciples into jubilant witnesses of the Resurrection of their and our Saviour.
This virus affliction we’re in is primarily about being confidently watchful for what Jesus, who is alive and active, is doing in it and through it. Yet, too many are caught up in what the virus is doing, spending too much energy protecting themselves from it. Our deeper affliction is being deprived of the Holy Eucharist.
Our deeper affliction is being deprived of the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus told us not to be afraid of those who can kill the body but can do nothing to our soul. I think he’d add viruses too. The destiny of our soul is his decision which is wrapped in mercy. So we need to think seriously about that and what horizon we’re fixing our eyes on, especially at this time. That doesn’t imply a flippant approach to protecting ourselves from COVD-19.
When Cardinal Collins in his Easter Vigil homily told us the Eucharist is our closest encounter with the Lord until we meet him face to face “…from the moment of our death whenever that may be…” he paused a bit adding “and we’re called to think seriously about that these days and I hope it smartens us all up… “
This life is just a short trip to our eternal destination. St. Ignatius of Antioch told us the medicine of immortality along the way is the Eucharist. So of those guiding us in this pandemic, the bishops should be the ones most criticized for taking risks to feed us with that medicine. Or at least they should be fighting for our need to receive it at Holy Mass.
Cardinal Raymond Burke in conversation with Raymond Arroyo: “The irony is in some places the restrictions placed by the ecclesial authorities are much more severe than what the government itself is requiring…We need to make sure we’re not denying people the Sacraments when they need them most.” (World Over April 9, 2020)
The Cardinal wrote an inspiring letter, March 21 offering guidance to the Church. In it he said we need to have “at all times and above all in times of crisis… access to our churches and chapels, to the Sacraments, and public devotions and prayers.”
He stressed how our secularized culture sees prayer and public worship as just another thing to do, or worse, an unnecessary thing which in the face of a pandemic is consequently seen as a non-essential activity needing the axe.
He wrote, “Therefore, we cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or an athletic contest…We bishops and priests need to explain publicly the necessity of Catholics to pray and worship in their churches and chapels, and to go in procession through the streets and ways, asking God’s blessing upon His people who suffer so intensely.”
This is the first instance where I’ve read or heard a bishop openly oppose the government. Cardinal Burke certainly recognized the need for a determined disease prevention plan so he offered a few ideas, without keeping Jesus hostage behind locked church doors with just the priest and webcam.
He pointed to large Churches and chapels that can handle the required physical distancing. But he went further providing an excellent solution for Confession: “The confessional with the traditional screen is usually equipped with or if not, can be easily equipped with a thin veil which can be treated with disinfectant.” He also suggested disinfecting pews and touch surfaces.
The extraordinary effort going on at grocery stores and drugstores to keep us safe shows how much more of a priority we place on our physical needs compared to receiving the Bread of Angels for our soul which is also food for our body and mind. Sure they’ve got the people to do it. So do parishes have the people. We just need permission.
I hunger for the bread of God, the flesh of Jesus Christ …; I long to drink of his blood, the gift of unending love.
– St. Ignatius of Antioch
3rd Week Of Easter, May 1
I said, previously, the bishops will “inevitably face a showdown with governments…” when the time is right. That time has arrived and it’s happening in God’s favourite country, Italy, one of three countries hit hardest by the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte launched a cautious easing of social restrictions, April 26, that left cathedrals and churches closed to congregations until a future date. Beginning May 4 businesses, factories, and building sites along with public playgrounds are set to open.
That decision exasperated the Italian bishops who had been talking with government officials for weeks about returning to pastoral service once restrictions start easing. In a statement from the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CEI), they said Conte’s decision “arbitrarily excludes the celebration of Mass with the public.”
During those talks, Italy’s Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese on April 23 assured them that any new measures would “allow the widest possible exercise of religious freedom.” Throughout the discussions, it was repeatedly stressed, the bishops’ statement said, that the Church would be able to resume its pastoral work once the restrictions eased.
The bishops emphasized, further, the centrality of the Sacraments: “It should be clear to all, that the commitment to the service of the poor, so significant in this emergency, stems from a faith that must be able to be nourished at its sources, in particular the sacramental life.”
Their push-back worked, even with Pope Francis intervening April 28 when, in his morning homily, he called for “prudence and obedience to the rules so that the pandemic does not return.”. He made no mention of the bishops’ clash with the prime minister in his homily.
The government changed its stance to include the Church in its plan to loosen the lockdown. Open-air Eucharistic celebrations will be allowed around May 11 proceeding to public Masses in churches under strict protection measures around the end of May. For the details read Edward Pentin’s article in the National Catholic Register.
The timing of the bishops’ reaction is huge, landing on the threshold of May 1st, Mary’s month. The fact that the bishops stood firm rather than bend again to civic authority has a mother’s touch. It also has global significance. With Italy having the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, the move sets a standard for other countries experiencing a far less Covid-19 impact.
It appears that Our Blessed Mother is the hidden jewel shining through the event. Consider Pope Francis’ unparalleled Urbi et Orbi Blessing, March 27 during which he prayed to the Mother of God in front of the ancient icon Salus Populi Romani.
The famous Icon is usually kept at the Basilica of Mary Major in Rome. Pope Francis prayed before the icon the day after his election and prays to the Mother of God at it before and after every apostolic journey.
Pope Gregory stands at the center of the beautiful and miraculous story related to Salus Populi Romani. For a thorough account of his experience and the history of the icon see Fr Sean Connolly’s article in The Catholic World Report.
Equally important to the bishops insisting that Mass be on the list of allowed social gatherings is the government’s change of heart. That change will hopefully radiate to governments in all countries who see the Sacred Liturgy and other gatherings for prayer as “non-essential”.
It is happening now. A report in The National Catholic Register, April 24, stated that one week after Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, became the first United States bishop to lift the ban on the public celebration of Mass in his diocese, three more announced, April 23, they will resume public celebration of Mass, subject to the requirements of public health orders.
Bishop Baldacchino mentioned the creative work that needs to be done to safely accommodate people such as open-air Masses and Communion distribution at “drive-up services”.
The good news, so far, is how civil authorities are seeing the need to let the Church serve, which is a striking change of thinking from the time they set the lockdown rules.
Bishop Baldacchino recalled how many civil jurisdictions listed liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries as “essential services” ahead of churches. That thinking is “totally upside down,” he added.
Our Mother is interceding and when she does the human heart changes which is precisely what her Son wants happening everywhere.
4th Week Of Easter, May 8
With Italy set to slide the Mass into its ease-the-lockdown schedule the rest of the world’s bishops have started working with officials as well. I use “working” with a great deal of prayer and hope, given the universal view from civic authorities that Church gatherings are “non-essential”.
That term, which most of the bishops have made little effort to correct, sets up where on the list Church gatherings will be placed when reopening plans unfold.
As I wrote in my May 1st entry Italy’s Prime Minister Conte had the Catholic Church sitting on the bench in his initial reopening plan. His quick change of mind came from a hefty and harsh reaction from the Italian bishops who would not accept it.
So how’s it going here in Canada?
Here’s the Ontario Government’s list as of May 7 reported by CityNews:
Friday, May 8: Garden centres and nurseries will be able to open for in-store payment and purchases, operating under the same guidelines as grocery stores and pharmacies.
Saturday, May 9: Hardware stores and safety supply stores will be permitted to open for in-store payment and purchases.
Monday, May 11: Retail stores with a street entrance can begin offering curbside pickup and delivery, in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s Guidance Document for Essential Workplaces and occupational health and safety requirements.
Thursday, May 14: The LCBO will extend its hours, opening from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Currently, the stores are open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on those days. Sunday hours will remain the same, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
When I phoned one of Canada’s favourite stores, Canadian Tire, asking when I can enter, I was told Saturday, May, 9.
The overall tone regarding the importance of the Eucharist is the same as the pre-COVID tone: silence and indifference as the crowds get ready to flock to stores on Sundays, knowing they’ll be facing the same protocol grocery stores have had in place for two months.
So far I’ve seen no announcements from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops website on how negotiations are going if they are happening at all. Nothing showing up in Catholic news either except some movement in Alberta.
Gathering for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will probably land in Stage 3 which says “relaxing restrictions on public gatherings”.
The priority given to everything but the Eucharist is not a surprise, given the precise observation of Benedict XVI in a new biography by German author Peter Seewald: “Events have shown by now that the crisis of faith has above all led to a crisis of Christian existence.”
So what is surprising? As I’ve mentioned throughout Week To Week With The Bishops’ Decision it’s the absence of fight from the Canadian bishops to feed us with the Bread of Angels compared to the Italian Bishops.
4th Week Of Easter, May 9
As to the situation in the United States, I’ll turn to Raymond Arroyo who masterfully asks the tough questions and shares piercing insights with his varied, gifted and faith-filled guests.
His May 7 World Over Live launched the topic of Religious Liberty and the State. He spoke with Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney for the Center for Religious Liberty, who filed a lawsuit against the governor of the State of California on behalf of California Pastors claiming the Covid-19 rules for public gatherings places “unconstitutional restrictions” on groups gathering to worship.
She’s taking on a growing trend, she sees, where governors who are “not fans of religion” are burdening the faithful with restrictions they don’t hit similar secular gatherings with.
Raymond and Harmeet’s dialogue focussed on “irrational” restrictions and time frames placed on church services such as waiting until a vaccine arrives. In another case, she said daycare centers can have unlimited access, yet we can’t go into a church to pray.
When Raymond Arroyo asked if she’s had any support or interest from Catholic bishops she said no. Her reason she suspects is, “they’re just falling into line” when the governors cleverly tell them “don’t worry it’s for everyone’s safety”.
Raymond went further, “Why do you think some of the major denominations are so reluctant to engage in the question of… essential services. We should be given the same rights as Cosco, etc.” She answered by surmising there’s a bit of fear of persecution and so they lay low.”
He showed obvious disappointment wondering why the bishops wouldn’t join “the very least effort” to have Mass considered an essential service.
They concluded their talk with a look at where Churches sit in the re-opening plan. Just like the Ontario list, Churches in California are benched until the final phase 3. Raymond smiled as he mentioned how schools and restaurants are opening fully in phase 2.
Harmeet: “It’s outrageous Raymond. Think about it. You can go to a restaurant and sit a few feet apart but you can’t go into a church.”
It’s also outrageous that the majority of bishops, apart from the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops, have yielded to the primacy of safety over the primacy of the Eucharist preached by governments who notoriously oppose them on every call to safeguard the sanctity of life.
Jesus yielded to Pontius Pilate’s death sentence, yet overpowered him with his Wisdom during the debate on truth and power (John 19:11).
You can get all the support details, facial expressions and some humour on the World Over here.
For two months I’ve asked the Lord why with the same look of confusion and disappointment Raymond showed on his May 7 World Over. Each week He leads me to love the Shepherds he’s chosen and given to me.
I participate in Archbishop Thomas Collins’ daily virtual Mass with joy and gratitude. This bishop’s profound passion and love for Christ has drawn me closer to the Truth throughout the pandemic, stirring my soul to serve the Good Shepherd.
As I ponder these events centred around his Body and Blood primarily, the virus secondarily I know Jesus is leading His Church through another battle that’s mostly being fought in His arena. When I say no to discouragement and yes to his absolute life-giving authority over me and everything, I walk with peace serving him.
As I continue to live week to week with the bishops’ decision my Redeemer asks me to accept whatever has happened just as he asked St. John Chrysostom one of my favourite bishops who tells me wisely,
“All things will certainly turn out, whether in this life or the life to come. In every circumstance, yield to the incomprehensibility of God’s providence.”