Early on in his papacy, Pope Francis likened the Church to a field hospital. But the analogy hasn’t held up amidst coronavirus fears. The diocese of Rome has suspended Masses through April 3. The idea of closing churches during a crisis is a peculiarly modern one. The ancient impulse during a crisis was not to abolish worship but to increase it.
In the age of the secularized Catholic Church, deference to the state, which prioritizes the body over the soul, is the order of the day. Even in America, where the risk of infection from coronavirus remains low, bishops close to Francis have also shut Church doors.
“The Archdiocese of Seattle has been joined by numerous other dioceses, including those of Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe, in canceling public Masses. Major archdioceses, such as in Chicago and Newark, have undertaken similar precautions. In Philadelphia, newly appointed Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez relieved Catholics of their Sunday Mass obligations,” reports America.
In so doing, the Church is making Mass seem as nonessential as a rock concert. It is hard to imagine the pre-Vatican II Church behaving so skittishly. Churches are as vital to the soul as supermarkets are to the body. If the latter remain open, why not the former? It is not as if the coronavirus is the black plague. For most people, it is a non-fatal disease that resolves itself.
Just as the Church of Pope Francis pants after the trends of the moment, so it follows the world’s panics too.
“In Washington, D.C., where starting March 14 all Masses and campus ministries will cease, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said, ‘My number one priority as your Archbishop is to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services,’ ” reports America.
Is that really his first priority? He makes his job sound like that of a manager of a business. Isn’t the first priority of a bishop the salvation of souls?
In Italy, some Catholics are befuddled to see cafes open while Masses shut down. But in a de-Christianized age, that’s what they should expect. Reuters reports:
Critics say being allowed to pray in a church, albeit with precautions similar to those imposed on stores, should be seen as an essential service.
“My heart is in pieces,” Father Maurizio Mirilli, a pastor of a Rome parish said on Twitter. “I have to close everything, even the church … I feel like a father whose children have been snatched from him.”
“Churches closed in the capital of Christianity is a wound that will be hard for us to forget,” tweeted Gaetano Strano. “The Church is independent from the state and was not obliged to adhere to government norms.”
Historians in the future will surely look back at the panic over the Wuhan coronavirus as an example of the cure being worse than the disease. But what will surely shock them the most is the frightened behavior of the Church, which allowed itself to be swept up in a media-created panic. During Lent, its holiest season, the Church turned not to God but away from him, all to avoid a disease less fatal to most than the common flu.
“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Pope Francis has argued, speaking metaphorically about the problems of the soul. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”
Pope Francis hasn’t followed his own advice. Within the last few days, he did reverse the ban on open churches for prayer. But the ban on Masses remains in place. He should reverse that one, too, and demonstrate to the world that the worship of God and the health of the soul take precedence over excessive fears about the body.