COVID Can’t Mute the Splendor of the Season

EDITORIAL: Because the Church has demonstrated Mass can be safely celebrated amid this pandemic, Catholics must stand firm against unjust efforts to drastically curtail our public worship.

Due to a spike in coronavirus cases in Rome and Europe, Pope Francis will celebrate Advent and Christmas liturgies via livestream. Just as for Lent and Easter, the liturgies will be held before a limited congregation. The Holy Father is shown above Oct. 20 wearing a protective face mask while attending a Prayer for Peace initiative in Rome.
Due to a spike in coronavirus cases in Rome and Europe, Pope Francis will celebrate Advent and Christmas liturgies via livestream. Just as for Lent and Easter, the liturgies will be held before a limited congregation. The Holy Father is shown above Oct. 20 wearing a protective face mask while attending a Prayer for Peace initiative in Rome. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

Weeks after the coronavirus was declared a worldwide pandemic and cities across the globe shut down, Pope Francis stood in the pouring rain nearly alone in St. Peter’s Square and blessed the city of Rome and the world with the Holy Eucharist in an act of trust in the sovereignty of Jesus and in a dramatic sign of solidarity amid the tumult. The world watched from their televisions and mobile devices. 

The Vatican recently announced that it has curtailed public participation in Advent and Christmas liturgical celebrations in St. Peter’s Basilica as COVID-19 cases spike internationally. Papal liturgies again will be livestreamed on the internet. So nine months later, Pope Francis’ Christmas and New Year’s urbi et orbi blessings may be given in a similar fashion. 

If so, we can hope this situation might serve as a similarly powerful witness to faith amidst the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it would also provide a very painful reminder of how many of the faithful continue to be deprived of active and personal participation in the central sacrament of the Church’s worship of God, even during the holy season in which we celebrate the birth of our Savior. 

Thankfully, Catholics in Rome currently still have access to Mass, as churches have not barred the faithful from attending as long as safety standards are followed. However, new pandemic restrictions have been enacted elsewhere throughout Europe — including the suspension of public Mass in Ireland, France, Belgium and England. 

In the United States, as coronavirus cases rise, state and local officials are grappling with how to stop the spread of the virus without widespread shutdowns. New or reimplemented restrictions in some places have left Catholics concerned that we might revisit the dark days of this spring, when public Masses were suspended across the country. For example, the city of Philadelphia recently issued restrictions limiting houses of worship to just 5% capacity. This restriction will be in place beyond Christmas Day. 

Worship remains severely restricted in California, where the faithful are barred from attending any indoor Masses in Los Angeles County. Farther north in San Francisco, less restrictive provisions are currently in place only because Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone launched a campaign to “Free the Mass,” which eventually led to archdiocesan churches in the city being allowed to have 100 participants each Mass. 

And in New York, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn has been forced to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10- to 25-person limits on church attendance depending on the severity of the COVID-19 caseload in the surrounding geographic area. On Nov. 25, the high court halted Cuomo's enforcement of the severe restrictions on attendance at religious services, arguing that “the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

Catholic faithful in all of these places have pushed back against excessive restrictions on the evidence-based grounds that Mass — with appropriate mitigation procedures in place — is both an essential and safe activity during this pandemic. 

In the six months since most U.S. dioceses have resumed public Masses, it has been comprehensively demonstrated that Catholic churches have instituted effective measures that allow them to responsibly celebrate Mass and offer other sacraments without endangering the public. 

By adopting the appropriate public-health recommendations — handwashing, masking, social distancing — our churches have shown how an activity that is essential for our spiritual health need not be provided at the cost of our physical health or the physical health of our neighbors. 

In fact, during the period since public Masses became available again, there have been no super-spreader events anywhere in the nation tied to Catholic parishes, according to Dr. Thomas McGovern, a former clinical research physician for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and one of the authors of the Thomistic Institute’s guidelines for safely celebrating Mass. 

McGovern consequently told the Register he would advise bishops “to fight for our right to worship God safely.” 

“We have shown that we can do it safely,” he said.

The Register agrees with McGovern. Because the Church has demonstrated Mass can be safely celebrated amid this pandemic, Catholics must stand firm against unjust efforts to drastically curtail our public worship.

It was one thing to suspend public Masses in March, when we knew less about the virus and how it could spread. But the Catholic faithful have shown that their collective commitment to following public-health recommendations works. Keeping our doors closed for Easter may have been necessary this spring, but we have demonstrated that such a step is not necessary this Christmas. 

As we live through the most unusual Advent and Christmas in living memory, let us be in solidarity with those who cannot yet attend Mass or receive the sacraments. And through prayer and quietude let us strive to renew within ourselves the spiritual hunger for that which is most essential — the Bread of Heaven humbly laid in a manger for us.

Thomas Farr

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