Along with a widespread threat of illness and death, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has also introduced into the Catholic world controversy and disagreement over the availability of sacraments during this worldwide crisis.

As with many services in the business community at this time, services in the Catholic Church have been curtailed or canceled in the name of public safety. Across the United States and around the world, access to daily and Sunday Masses has been almost universally reduced to televised Masses. Access to sacraments of the Church — most notably Confession, Holy Communion and even, in many areas, Anointing of the Sick — has been restricted or suspended.

Dr. Janet Smith, former professor of moral theology at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, is deeply concerned that Catholics need the sacraments, perhaps now more than ever. Dr. Smith penned a request in the form of an online petition titled “We Are an Easter People,” calling upon the bishops to make all the sacraments as available as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Smith's open letter implores the bishops to consider nine requests. She asked that the Anointing of the Sick be provided, especially to the dying; that bishops demand that civil authorities permit such ministry, with the expectation that appropriate precautions will be taken; and that civil authorities in every state recognize that religious services are essential services. Smith called upon the bishops to make possible some form of public Mass, especially on Easter, to offer Mass personally and to encourage priests to conduct it. Attempts should be made to find a safe way to distribute the Eucharist (with due precautions), and to keep open churches and shrines for prayer and adoration. Lastly, Dr. Smith asked that bishops inform their flock of what they have done and what they hope to do, in the face of the serious health risks imposed by the coronavirus.

Twenty-two prominent Catholic thinkers, writers and educators — among them Mary Beth Bonacci, Matt Fradd, Abby Johnson, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Dr. Ray Guarendi, Matt Walsh and Philip Lawler — concurred with Dr. Smith that they need greater access to the sacraments during this pandemic, and joined the effort as Project Endorsers. And Catholics in the pews agreed: As of Thursday evening, April 2, more than 4,000 Catholics had added their signatures to the open letter at the website We Are an Easter People; and another 8,600 had signed the petition at lifepetitions.com. Believing that the Church exists for the people she serves, especially in the most difficult of times, these Catholics are petitioning the bishops of this country to make available the sacraments that have been so much a part of their daily lives. “It is not an exaggeration,” Smith wrote in the introduction to her letter, “to say that the health of the world and the salvation of souls depends upon it.”

 

An Inconsistent Response in Time of Crisis

Diocesan directives regarding sacramental access across the country have been inconsistent, with some bishops permitting the celebration of Reconciliation, for example, under certain conditions while others have favored suspension of the sacrament altogether. Some dioceses have directed the faithful to contact their individual parishes for the sacraments; others have closed churches and chapels and suspended the availability of the sacrament of Reconciliation, except for the dying. Still others permit “outdoor” confessions and another has closed all churches and even suspended the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

Also, while there seems to be agreement on the temporary suspension of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony and perhaps even Holy Orders, there appears to be no such unanimity in the treatment of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. There is no universal policy from diocese to diocese in the United States.

 

Why Televised Mass Is Not Sufficient

Dr. Smith talked with the Register about her campaign to reach out to the U.S. bishops, in hopes of inspiring a generous response. She had, she confessed, come to enjoy “attending” Mass on television; but she cautioned that participating in a televised liturgy is not the same thing. “Obviously,” she said, “there is a huge difference between the actions [of participating in a live liturgy, and watching on TV]. Being in the presence — even as one person among 4 million at a papal Mass — counts, whereas watching that same Mass on TV does not.”

Smith added that we are an incarnational people, and that being bodily present is important. People in love want to be near the beloved; and we, as Catholics in love with Christ, want to be with Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, not merely watch him on TV. Smith had not personally attended a parking lot Mass; but she thought that while it might, in some ways, seem inferior to a well-produced televised Mass, it is nonetheless superior because the participants are truly in the presence of Jesus.

Asked whether her use of the term “Easter People” meant that she would like to see a Mass on Easter Sunday, Dr. Smith said, “That is a beginning. Get the altars constructed in the parking lots or fields. Get the technology up and running that will broadcast the Mass. Is there any reason not to continue to offer Mass?”

 

The Urgent Need for Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick

Citing a March 13 letter from the Vatican reflecting on the need for the sacraments in a time of crisis, Smith’s open letter implores the bishops especially to make every attempt to enable priests to minister to the sick and dying. “While not having access to the sacraments is always difficult, it is especially devastating not to have access to the Anointing of the Sick when a lethal pestilence is ravaging our world,” the letter contends.

“Catholics believe the sacrament can sometimes effect a physical healing, but that it always strengthens the sick and gives stamina and hope in the face of suffering and death. It enables the sick and dying to unite their sufferings with those of Christ, and to enter eternal life newly blessed by God.”

Aware that “many states, hospitals, and even bishops are forbidding priests to attend to those afflicted with COVID-19,” the petition urges that every attempt be made to enable priests to minister to the sick and dying.

 

Protecting Priests, Respecting Civil Authorities

In their actions, many Church authorities appear to be concerned at this time with the preservation of health and life, and with complying with the directions of civil authorities, and have canceled services and access to the sacraments precisely for these reasons. Only priests and bishops, of course, can grant absolution in the sacrament of Reconciliation, confect the Body and Blood of Christ during the celebration of the Mass, and provide the graces imparted in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. And bishops and priests are almost universally in the most vulnerable age group that the coronavirus has targeted. Because there are fewer priests than needed in this country to begin with, the loss of any priests to the virus would compound the problems faced in the delivery of sacraments to the faithful after the pandemic has ended.

Janet Smith and the project’s endorsers understand the dangers involved for priests who confront the virus directly. “Certainly,” Smith said, “any vulnerable priest should stay away from people; but I suspect a lot of them can say Mass without coming into contact with anyone. But there will be enough priests who are positively eager to say Mass to get the job done.”

Smith didn't want to put anyone at risk, but she believed that if we expect people to work in supermarkets, we can expect a priest to celebrate a Mass, where he need not come in contact with anyone. “We stay in our cars,” she said, “and he stays at the altar. No deacon, no altar servers.”

But while emphasizing the need to safeguard priests so that they do not succumb to the disease, Smith and the group of Catholic leaders were concerned about being deprived of the sacraments. “The sacraments are gifts of inestimable value,” they insist:

They open up for us the gates of Heaven and bestow upon us graces that enable us to be loving disciples of Christ our Savior.

We know many of our priests are eager to attend to those with COVID-19 and are willing to put their lives at risk. We admire their willingness to suffer and possibly to experience martyrdom. We treasure our priests beyond all telling, and do not want to lose any of them, and without question support measures to keep them safe. We urge bishops to assure that all priests who attend to those with COVID-19 to have Personal Protective Equipment and follow all sanitizing procedures. Most importantly, we promise to cover our courageous holy priests in prayer.

Dr. Smith noted that there are times when the state can impose restrictions, and one of those times is when there is danger in personal interaction. “But,” she added:

...we need to start with the right principle. Religion is an essential service – It is not just like a sporting event or concert that entertains us, that we can take or leave. The purpose of life is to be in a right relationship with the Lord. The sacraments are essential means of sustaining that relationship. If we can still worship and provide sacraments, and do so within the directives for safety, it is important that we be allowed to do so.

Unfortunately, whereas the founders of this country believed religious practice to be essential to the well-being of a nation and thus deserving of protection, too many in our culture think religion to be a pathetic superstition that does more harm than good. Such people are thrilled at any opportunity to wean religious believers from their practices.

 

Hope for a Positive Response

Asked whether she had received any response as yet from the bishops, Dr. Smith said no — but added that she hadn't really expected to hear so quickly. “Bishops take some time to respond,” she acknowledged. And Smith repeated a hope she had stated online:

I have been asked what response I hope for. This is not what I expect but what I hope for (and I hope for miracles): I hope bishops will say, ‘Thank you so much for this courteous open letter. We love hearing from the laity about their spiritual needs and how we might be able to meet them. This was an effective way to get our attention. We will be trying as hard as we can to assess what we can do of the things you request and will communicate more with you about what we are doing and why.’