By Bishop Thomas Zinkula
For The Catholic Messenger
It has been interesting. While the churches were closed, I received communications from the faithful thanking me for being careful and prudent. I also received messages respectfully asking questions, as well as some with edgy challenges like “give me back the Mass!” What’s a bishop to do?
I can assure you that the reason for waiting this long to resume the celebration of public Masses wasn’t because of fear; it was because of love. St. John the Evangelist tells us that God is love. Jesus tells us to love God and neighbor. He says there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
No small part of my decision-making was based on respect for the dignity and value of every human life in all its stages. We are to have a preferential option for the poor. In these circumstances, the “poor” and the “friends” whom we love are those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age and/or underlying health issues.
It is a little disconcerting to hear people use the individual choice language that our secular culture embraces, as in I have a right to choose to take the risk of attending Mass. Our choices affect other people. The Catholic concept of the common good calls us to not be self-focused and individualistic, but instead to sacrifice for the good of the whole.
What if I, succumbing to pressure, made the choice to resume public Masses too soon, and someone made the choice to attend Mass because they weren’t afraid of a virus; then that person became infected at Mass and infected their family, their elderly mother or grandmother, co-workers, a healthcare worker who tended to them, and a priest who ministered to them?
Some state that we should rush back to Mass because our spiritual lives are more important than our physical lives. Yet the Church teaches that we have a responsibility to care for our whole selves, body and soul. Catholics treasure the Eucharist because it is the source and summit of the Christian life. It is essential, powerful medicine for our souls, part and parcel of who we are as Church. Jesus, however, isn’t encountered only in the Eucharist. It isn’t a matter of all or nothing.
We can encounter Jesus in our personal prayer and devotions, in the Scriptures, and in those most in need. Online Masses and spiritual Communion aren’t the ideal of course, but they can be a means of grace. There are many Catholics who even in normal circumstances don’t have regular access to the Mass but remain faith-filled Catholics.
Others proclaim that Jesus will protect those who attend Mass during the pandemic. That reminds me of the story of a guy in a house during a flood. As the water rises, people in a Jeep, a boat and a helicopter offer to help him evacuate, but he tells them God will take care of him. When he drowns and goes to heaven he asks God why, given his deep faith, God let him die. God replies, “I sent you a Jeep, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?!”
God has given us infectious disease specialists and researchers. God has given us intelligence and common sense. Many outbreaks of the coronavirus have occurred in churches. Worship isn’t a magic shield. Making poor choices that lead to infection, suffering and death doesn’t make one a heroic martyr. It is laying down one’s life for a virus, heaven forbid, not for Christ or a friend!
On the surface it appears incongruous that people could go to the grocery store and gradually patronize more and more businesses, but they couldn’t attend Mass. Surely, economics, politics and grumbles had an impact on those reopening decisions. Also, just because something is allowed, it doesn’t follow that one should do it. Finally, comparing shopping and going to church is like comparing apples and oranges. Researchers have discovered that this virus is most easily spread in confined spaces where people are gathered, and that the risk of infection increases the longer a group is together.
I know that the governor gave religious leaders the green light to reopen churches and the president said worshippers should return to church. I am aware of the decisions other bishops have made based on their particular circumstances. Meanwhile, I am responsible for the Diocese of Davenport. I love the people I serve and I want to do right by them.
The diocese developed a pandemic plan about 15 years ago. We began updating it early this year in order to adapt it to this particular coronavirus. We have been carefully monitoring the data provided by the Iowa Department of Public Health and following our protocols both in shutting down and now opening back up.
Although it is still risky (and hence we are taking many precautions), we are beginning to celebrate public Masses again because it is safer now and we have been aching for Communion with Christ and communion with one another. But if the indicators we are tracking once again show a significant increase in pandemic activity, I won’t hesitate to reinstate restrictions. Why? Not because of fear, but because of love.
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