Catholics Ask Their Shepherds: Where Are You?

"The Faithless Shepherd," by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

By John Zmirak Published on April 4, 2020

A national open letter campaign launched this week. Its aim? To urge all U.S. bishops to find safe ways to restore the sacraments to Catholics, who’ve been deprived of them because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Full disclosure: I added my name to the list of signatories.) 

“Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship. While safety and cooperation with civil authorities is necessary, we must do everything we can to have access to what is essential for our spiritual lives. We should certainly not voluntarily deprive ourselves of the sacraments,” the statement said. 

Spiritual “Personal Protective Equipment”

The campaign is spearheaded by Dr. Janet E. Smith. Recently retired, she long was Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of many books and articles on life issues.

“The sacraments are the spiritual ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ of Catholics,” said Smith. “They enable us to work in the field hospital of the sick and dying. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholics are being deprived of what is central to our faith — the sacraments. The sacraments are gifts of inestimable value. 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.”

The open letter comes after a city in Texas was forced to walk back parts of their shelter-in-place order because it infringed on religious liberty rights. It includes practical suggestions on how to implement the restoration of the Sacraments, especially the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist, while adhering to CDC recommendations on personal protection.

“We hope bishops are pressing governments and hospitals to rescind policies that deny priests access to seriously sick and dying patients,” said Smith. “This is a matter of religious liberty! We should be free to practice our religion.”

What Are Catholics Asking For?

I decided to interview Dr. Smith so she could explain her campaign.

Was there a “tipping point” for you, some statement or event, that convinced you that Catholic bishops weren’t responding adequately to the Coronavirus?

People were posting on Facebook pictures of priests doing innovative things to provide the graces of the sacraments — a true connection with Jesus — to their flock.  There were precious few reports of bishops doing anything. Except cancelling opportunities to receive the sacraments. Providing little to no explanation for their decisions. And doing little to direct faithful laity on how to maintain and strengthen their faith in this time of deprivation. They were MIA.

Our non-Catholic readers are reading their bibles and praying together, online or on the phone. Why don’t Catholics find that sufficient? Why is access to sacraments is so central to us?

Catholics are reading our Bibles and having recourse to the many spiritual practices the Catholic faith has developed over the centuries. We’re saying the rosary. (It features the biblical invocation of the angel Gabriel to Mary and the greeting of Elizabeth to Mary.) And we’re praying the Liturgy of the Hours. (That enables Catholics to pray all 150 psalms in a week’s time, plus readings from the New and Old Testament and from the Church Fathers. We’re praying the Stations of the Cross. And so on.

We believe grace comes to us and the world through such prayers. But the sacraments are special means of grace we believe have been established by Christ himself. Worthy reception of these sacraments saves our souls and protects them from evil.  The Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass is a reenactment of Christ’s salvific act. One which Christ mandated we do in memory of Him.  To stay away from the sacraments is to stay away from a sure source of grace. 

Certainly we believe that God provides graces in countless ways. But unless it is absolutely impossible to participate in Mass, we are obliged to do so. We are simply not convinced that it should be impossible to participate in Mass now.  We hope we can find a way to attend Mass and fully protect the priest and congregation from the possibility of infection. 

 

A Long Stay-cation for Clergy? 

Do you get the sense that for some pastors and even bishops, the virus just seems like a pretext for a long vacation?

Oh dear, I am sorry to say that thought has occurred to me. Holy Week is an exhausting ordeal for all of us who fully participate in it. Especially for priests, but lay people, too. There is the Chrism Mass, lengthy Masses and Eucharistic ceremonies on Holy Thursday night. Then Good Friday. And then what is sometimes a three-hour-long vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night. Strong believers really want to participate in all those events. Weak believers find it all to be too much.

 

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Did you look at Pope Francis’ revision of the prayers for Mass in time of pandemic? It cuts out all references to plagues as possible evidence of God’s wrath, and prayers to avert that. Do you personally think it’s fruitful to consider divine wrath as part of the picture now?

That is as mind-boggling as things get. There is no doubt for those who know the Old Testament and the New. God wants us to take the time of plagues and other natural disasters as opportunities to reflect upon our sinfulness. To repent of our sins, and return to Him. “Divine wrath” is a complicated theological concept. But whatever it means, it means that sin deserves punishment and that punishment is good for us. It enables us to do reparation for our sins and to turn back to our Loving Father.

 

Sending the Wrong Message

Many Catholics are already shaky in their grasp of the faith. What message does it send them when bishops won’t even allow drive-through Confession? Or general absolution in parking lots?

Weak believers conclude that the sacraments must not be that important. So the bishops aren’t doing all they can to make them available to us. Strong believers fear the faith of the bishops themselves must be weak. Or that they are concerned more for the favor of the public than for souls.

God wants us to take the time of plagues and other natural disasters as opportunities to reflect upon our sinfulness. To repent of our sins, and return to Him.

 

London Spectator columnist Damian Thompson worries that a large percentage of weekly mass-goers might fall out of the habit. They might never pick it up again after this is over. Do you fear that? How can we combat it?

It is a very legitimate fear. Habit is a strong motivator. But this deprivation is also strengthening the faith of some. They have been surprised at how much they miss receiving Jesus in the Eucharist and going to communal expressions of our faith.  Many are saying that when Mass is available again, they will be receiving Jesus in the Eucharist with much great devotion. And going to Mass occasionally during the week.

 

Signs of Hope

How has the absence of all sacraments, except what we can watch on TV or online, affected your religious life personally?

Oh, I very much miss being in church. And praying with Jesus present in the tabernacle. Or during adoration with Jesus in the “exposed” Eucharist. I miss my fellow parishioners, many of whom I don’t know except for their loyal presence at Mass.  So I pray for them and they pray for me. I have found I love watching the Mass on TV. I thought I wouldn’t but it is tremendously consoling. Also, I “attend” Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Limerick, Ireland.  It is extremely moving to see a Mass said in an empty Church in a gorgeously dignified manner with exquisite music. They would be doing this even if it were not live-streamed. We believe that when priests say Mass they are worshiping for all of us and reenacting Christ’s sacrifice. I have committed myself to more prayer time and more spiritual reading every day.

 

Are there bishops whose actions stand out to you as good examples right now?

Yes.  I undoubtedly don’t know all that is being done, but let me mention a few. Bishop Strickland in Tyler, Texas, has become a model bishop. (And I fear other bishops resent him.) He is communicating with his flock daily. And encouraging his priests to provide opportunities for worship. He blessed all of Tyler by taking Jesus in the Eucharist to the busiest intersection in town. Bishop Olmstead has had his team produce a wonderful aid to celebrating Holy Week at home. Bishop Boyea hosted a full day of prayer and fasting with segments broadcast from several churches in the diocese. 

 

John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.

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