Q1: The Irish Bishops have decided to cancel all public Masses and have told us that we have a dispensation from Sunday Mass obligations as a result of the Coronavirus. Is this permissible? –Eileen
Q2: As a follow up to your most recent question/answer on receiving communion, can a Bishop cancel Masses for an indefinite period of time, essentially prohibit all public worship on an open- ended basis, and dispense EVERYONE generally from Sunday Mass attendance and Holy Days of Obligation? It seems there has to be some limitation on this authority. –Marc
Q3: The Bishop here in Singapore decided to cancel and/or suspend all public Masses indefinitely. Given that under Canon Law the faithful – who are not otherwise under some legal impediment or sanction – have a right to receive the sacraments (Canon 213), including assisting at Mass and receiving the Holy Eucharist, and bearing in mind especially that Sunday is the “primordial holy day of obligation” (Canon 1246 §1), it’s not clear to me whether a diocesan bishop even has authority to cancel or suspend public Masses at his own bidding and discretion. Pursuant to which provision in Canon Law may a diocesan bishop suspend or cancel public Masses? –Ian
A: If you’re rubbing your eyes and feeling like you’ve entered some sort of Catholic alternate reality, you have a lot of company. Readers from all around the world have emailed to ask fundamentally the same question: can a diocesan bishop actually cancel all public Masses, thus actively preventing the faithful from getting to Mass and receiving the sacraments? We’ll first have a look at what the law says about diocesan bishops’ responsibilities and the extent of their authority; and then we’ll turn to the responsibilities of our parish clergy.
But before even attempting to address this surreal question, we first have to make a critical distinction. There is a huge difference between a bishop dispensing the faithful from attending Mass (i.e., telling them that they don’t have to come), and a bishop cancelling all public Masses (i.e., telling the faithful that they can’t come). Note that some bishops are doing the first, while others are doing the second—and they are not the same thing.
As was discussed at length in “How Can You Get a Permanent Dispensation From Attending Sunday Mass?” the requirement to attend Mass on Sundays and Holydays of Obligation (cc. 1247, 1248.1) wasn’t invented out of thin air: it is based on the Third Commandment, given to Moses by God, telling us to keep the Sabbath holy. The Catholic Church has considered Sunday to be the Sabbath day from time immemorial; it is presumed that the Apostles established this because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. Similarly, the Church has always equated “keeping the Sabbath holy” with “Mass attendance,” since it holds that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (c. 897, which is based on Lumen Gentium 11). In short, there is no better way for a Catholic to worship God than to devoutly attend Mass.
As a general rule, therefore, Sunday Mass attendance is not optional! That said, however, there are many entirely legitimate reasons why a Catholic couldn’t get to Mass on a Sunday, and this reality is addressed in canon 1248.2: it states that if it is impossible to assist at the Eucharist, either because no priest is available or for some other grave reason, a Catholic should do something else that is liturgical/prayerful instead, as a substitute.
The use of the term “grave” in the Code of Canon Law was discussed in detail in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” but in general, “grave reason” is serious stuff. Often this is simply common sense: if (let’s say) you’re seriously ill and unable to get out of bed, or a huge snowstorm has rendered the roads hazardous/impassable, of course this would constitute a grave reason to miss Mass. No Catholic is expected to risk his life in order to fulfill his Sunday obligation. These sorts of emergencies are normally temporary and so once they cease, the person simply resumes Sunday Mass attendance again.
There are also some acceptable longer-term reasons for not attending Mass on Sunday. The most common scenario is perhaps that of the elderly or otherwise infirm person who is homebound. Similarly, a Catholic who lives in a region where there is no Catholic priest for hundreds of miles, or finds himself stuck indefinitely in an active war zone surrounded by land mines, or is working for many months on the International Space Station orbiting the earth, obviously can’t get to Mass! As we saw in “Tithing and Excommunication,” nobody can be required by law to do something that is humanly impossible.
It’s worth pointing out that in many of these sorts of cases, a Catholic doesn’t actually have to request/obtain an “official” dispensation from the law. If you’re in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital, your physical inability to attend Mass is in itself quite sufficient to dispense you from observing the law without your actually having to seek a dispensation. In many weather-related emergencies that happen to occur on a Sunday, a diocesan bishop will often declare publicly that the obligation of the Christian faithful of the diocese to attend Mass is hereby lifted. Now if the electrical power is out, many Catholics won’t even hear that the bishop has said that, but in the end it doesn’t really matter: if the weather is genuinely too treacherous to attempt to travel to church for Mass on a particular Sunday, consider yourself dispensed from the obligation.
It should be relatively easy to apply all this to the Coronavirus situation. If you’re at particular risk for contracting the virus (i.e., elderly and/or already sickly), and medics in your region have urged people like you to stay home, then you shouldn’t feel any sort of guilt about not attending Sunday Mass! If, in contrast, you’re young and healthy, and there’s no particular doctors’ warning in your area of the world because you’re not living in a place where the virus is widespread … you’d be hard-pressed to justify your failure to fulfill your Sunday obligation. This isn’t supposed to be super-complicated.
To sum up: if you, a member of the Catholic faithful, are genuinely unable to get to Sunday Mass, then you don’t have to go. You should consider yourself dispensed and not feel a shred of guilt about it! In some dioceses, bishops have recently explained this, and correctly. In these cases there is no theological or canonical problem at all—and there is really nothing new here.
But far, far different are the shockingly high number of announcements that all public Masses are cancelled, and the faithful are not allowed to come to Mass or receive the sacraments. Rest assured that such declarations are utterly unprecedented! As Marc rightly puts it, this “essentially prohibit[s] all public worship on an open-ended basis.” Can a bishop do this?
It would be wonderful to be able to open the Code of Canon law to the right page, and tell you that canon xyz says “no member of the Catholic hierarchy has the authority to prevent the entire body of the faithful entrusted to his care from attending Mass and receiving the sacraments.” But there isn’t any canon xyz to cite. That’s not because bishops do indeed have authority to do this; rather, there’s no explicit discussion of this in the code because bishops’ responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the faithful is supposed to be perfectly obvious.
When Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II was reviewing the draft Code of Canon Law before promulgating it in 1983, rest assured that he never, ever would have imagined in a million years that any diocesan bishop would dream of actually prohibiting Catholics from worshipping God in the way mandated by the Church. Anybody who knows a thing about the long life of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II will tell you that this man of God, who spent decades as a cleric ministering to the people of communist Poland, did everything humanly possible to ensure that the Polish faithful were not deprived of Mass or the sacraments—including bravely standing up to the communist government when necessary. Readers who are old enough to remember his election as Pope on October 16, 1978 may recall these memorable words, uttered at his inaugural Mass just after his election as Pope:
Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ…. let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.
In the 1960’s, it was Bishop Wojtyła who for years openly fought with the civil authorities in the Polish city of Nowa Huta—a new “ideal city” built by the communists, which had no church. Wojtyła himself would publicly celebrate Mass there in an open field (without a permit!) every single Christmas, until the authorities finally granted permission for the construction of a church there. He was keenly aware that he could be arrested—his colleague the Venerable Stefan Wyszynski, Cardinal Archbishop of Warsaw and Gniezno, had been imprisoned by the government for years—but this clearly did not deter him. In short, John Paul II practiced what he preached, and he undoubtedly took it for granted that other bishops should do the same.
While the Code of Canon Law which John Paul II promulgated doesn’t say anything about bishops prohibiting people from going to Mass and receiving the sacraments, it certainly does give us plenty of information about what bishops are supposed to be doing. Canon 387 is a good example: it tells us that the diocesan bishop, mindful that he is bound to give an example of holiness, charity, humility and simplicity of life, is to seek in every way to promote the holiness of Christ’s faithful. The canon adds that since the bishop is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, he is to strive constantly that Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments.
Polish bishops are handling the current situation in the right way: they have declared that since public gatherings have been limited by the Polish government to a certain number of people, the way to ensure that the people can get to Mass is … to offer more of them! We see here a group of bishops who have the correct theological understanding of the critical importance of the Mass: when faced with a problem that makes it difficult for people to attend, they are finding a legitimate way around it, so as to ensure that everyone can still come to Mass.
If we can’t live in Poland, would that we all lived in the French diocese of Pays de l’Ain, where Bishop Pascal Roland is adamantly insisting that the churches remain open, and Mass and the sacraments be available for whoever needs/wants them! Here is another fine example of a bishop who is clearly mindful of his responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of those who are entrusted to his care. Now contrast his declaration with that of this American archbishop, who—as incredible as it may seem—actually said this publicly, as he cancelled all public Masses throughout his archdiocese:
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.
It strains the bounds of credulity to think that there is a Catholic diocesan bishop on this planet who doesn’t understand that his “number one priority” is the salvation of souls, rather than of bodies … but there you have it. As the old saying goes, “A crisis does not build character. It only reveals it.”
Our Lord Himself made much the same statement about character, in His well known description of the Good Shepherd:
I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15)
It shouldn’t be necessary to point out to any Catholic that our clergy are supposed to be shepherds, not hired hands. But as we’re seeing now in a dramatic way, a startling number of them are revealing themselves to be perfectly willing to run away and abandon the sheep—like the hired man who does the job only for the money, and quits the minute that the going gets tough.
And in an apparent attempt to assuage their own consciences, some of them (like the American archbishop quoted above) insist that they are abandoning the faithful for good motives, which evidently in their minds somehow makes it okay. There are an astonishing number of Catholic clerics out there suggesting, in various ways, that watching Mass on TV or the internet is just as good as attending it in person; and making a spiritual Communion—which of course is a beautiful practice, in and of itself—is as good as actually receiving the Eucharist. It’s astonishing, because they seem to be entirely missing the irony that during the protestant reformation, the Catholic Church formally condemned as heretical the notion that the sacraments are not necessary for salvation (Session VII, Canon IV). In other words, stating that you don’t need to receive the sacraments is heresy.
Sure, if you’re ill or otherwise homebound, watching Mass live-streamed on your laptop is certainly better than nothing. But why should the alternative for everyone be “nothing”? By cancelling all public Masses, the bishops are telling the faithful that they can only stay at home and watch from afar while the clergy celebrate Mass and receive the Eucharist—which is very much like forcing starving people to stand outside, and watch through the window while you eat.
Fortunately, the current international uproar among the laity about the cancellation of Masses demonstrates their sound intuition. Many/most have never formally studied theology, and yet they have an accurate, innate “feel” that they need the Mass and the sacraments, and bishops who deny them access to these are indeed denying them their rights (as Ian rightly observes).
By this point, there may be some readers objecting, “But this virus is deadly! It would be imprudent for any bishop to risk the spread of infection!” Such people are conveniently forgetting that the Church has, in its nearly 2000-year history, plenty of experience dealing with widespread (and often far worse!) diseases—and it holds up for worldwide emulation numerous clergy who over the centuries handled these situations a bit differently.
St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) was the Archbishop of Milan during the plague of 1575-1576. Today, that particular period of plague is known as “the Plague of St. Charles,” because the Archbishop pointedly did not flee the city, instead personally attending to the thousands of sick and expending his own money to relieve them. He arranged for Masses to be celebrated outdoors (where tents had been erected to care for the thousands of sick), initiated Eucharistic Adoration throughout the archdiocese, and led processions through the streets. It’s worth noting, by the way, that St. Charles himself survived, despite his extensive contact with those who were infected. Today, of course, he is not only a saint, but the Church also established him as the patron saint of bishops and cardinals.
(It is a cruel irony that St. Charles’ successor, the current Archbishop of Milan, was the very first Italian bishop to order all public Masses suspended—despite no urging from the government, and at a very early point in the crisis, while all Milan’s bars, restaurants, museums and shops were still open. As of this writing, the Italian Province of Lombardy, where Milan and its Catholic archdiocese are located, remains the region of Italy which is far and away the most severely affected by the virus. Of course this is probably just a coincidence.)
But as we all know, it’s not only diocesan bishops who have responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the Catholic faithful; parish priests do too. They are under the authority of the bishop, who, as canon 384 tells us, is to ensure that priests fulfill the obligations proper to their state. (Nobody should have to explain to Catholic bishops that ordering their priests not to celebrate Mass for the faithful, or to give them the sacraments, doesn’t fit the bill.) The pastor of a parish is, as per canon 519, to exercise pastoral care of the community entrusted to his care under the authority of the diocesan bishop; and canon 528.2 expands on this, stating (among other things) that the parish priest is to take care that the blessed Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly of the faithful, and that they are nourished by the devout celebration of the sacraments, particularly frequent reception of the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance.
To be blunt: if our parish clergy aren’t at the parish to celebrate Mass, administer the sacraments, and otherwise minister to the spiritual needs of the parish faithful, then what are they there for?
Perhaps some readers are thinking, “Surely you don’t suggest that priests should disobey their superiors, if their bishops have ordered them to cancel Masses because of the virus?” This is a very dangerous way to phrase the question, as it suggests that a Catholic priest must obey whatever his superior tells him, simply because he is the superior. As we saw last week in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” the Catholic Church has taught from time immemorial that lex iniusta non est lex, an unjust law is no law at all—and it should not be obeyed. With regard to the issue under discussion here, this is true both in cases where the ruling came from the national Bishops’ Conference, and when its source is one’s individual bishop or other religious superior.
In some countries where the bishops have cancelled all public Masses, such as Ecuador, it is said that this was done by a decree of the Bishops’ Conference. (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a Conference of Bishops, a.k.a. an Episcopal Conference, is.) In such cases, the law is clear: the Bishops’ Conference had absolutely no authority to make such a decree, and according to canon 455 it is invalid. A conference of bishops can only issue general decrees in cases where either (a) universal law has prescribed it, or (b) a special mandate of the Apostolic See has established it (c. 455.1).
Rest assured that universal law definitely does not authorize Conferences of Bishops to cancel Masses throughout their territory! (In contrast, if you’re curious, look at canons 522, 788.3, 891, 1031.3, and 1083.2 for a few of the numerous places in the code where Episcopal Conferences are clearly authorized to establish their own laws and policies.) If, instead, the Holy See has recently issued the necessary “special mandate” allowing the Conference to issue such a decree … then the Episcopal Conference should naturally provide the faithful with evidence of that. To date, it doesn’t appear that any of them have.
To sum up: if priests are being told in your country that “all public Masses must be cancelled, by order of the Bishops’ Conference,” this directive has no legal weight and should be disregarded, period. There is no wiggle-room here.
But what’s a parish priest supposed to do, when his own diocesan bishop orders him to cancel Mass altogether, and bar parishioners from attending and receiving the sacraments? Since, as we’ve already seen above, a bishop is required to do exactly the opposite, we undeniably have here an example of an unjust law. “Because I said so” does not constitute justification for violating the law and the rights of the faithful.
Take a look at this heartbreaking true story, recently recounted on this outstanding Catholic website in Canada:
My 84 year old mother-in-law is having surgery this morning. When we checked her into the hospital yesterday for pre-op tests we requested that a priest be contacted so she could receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. We were told that all of the priests in the diocese here were ordered by the bishop to self quarantine…
Wait, what? “All the priests of the diocese,” who did not have the virus, “were ordered by the bishop to self quarantine” instead of ministering to the faithful entrusted to their care—and they complied. Presumably they were supposed to do this in order to save their own lives. But Catholics can be reasonably excused for asking, “Save them for what? Have you got something better to do?”
Compare this scandalously selfish, cowardly mentality with the heroism evidenced in Catholic saints and blesseds throughout the centuries, who died of diseases which they had contracted while ministering to and caring for others. Blessed Antonio of Olmedo was a priest and member of the Mercedarians, who died of the plague in Chile, which he caught from those sick Catholics to whom he was ministering. Much more well known is Jesuit Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who died while still a seminarian, at the age of only 23. During the plague which struck Rome in 1591, the Jesuits opened a hospital to minister to the victims, tending to both their bodies and their souls; and while Aloysius could not administer sacraments to them (since he was not yet a priest), this member of a wealthy noble family voluntarily served them as a nurse, and paid for his generosity with his life.
For their heroism, these men have been beatified and canonized, respectively, by the Catholic Church—which did so in order to encourage the faithful to pattern our lives after theirs. Now by way of contrast, put yourself in the shoes of a priest, who is today “ordered by the bishop to self quarantine,” thereby depriving the faithful of the sacraments to which they have a right (cf. c. 843.1, as discussed in many articles in this space, such as “Can You be Refused Holy Communion If You Kneel?” and “Can a Baby be Baptized During Lent?”). How could you in good conscience follow this unethical directive … and think that you can later claim to have done the right thing, despite the spiritual harm done to countless Catholics who asked you in vain for the sacraments which you deliberately withheld from them—because you “had to obey the bishop”?
Perhaps the objection will be made that “these saints are different, because they ministered to plague-victims without disobeying their superiors! If they had been disobedient, they wouldn’t be saints!” To this, one response should suffice: Saint Damien De Veuster of Moloka’i.
When the Belgian Father Damien (1840-1889) volunteered to minister to the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i in 1873, there was no known cure for the highly contagious disease (sound familiar?), and he knew full well that prolonged contact with the lepers was basically a death sentence. Before his arrival, those who were diagnosed with leprosy on other islands in the then-Kingdom of Hawaii—which today is part of the United States—were quarantined (again, sound familiar?) on Moloka’i, which basically meant that they were unceremoniously dumped there and left to die, unable ever to receive visitors or return home again.
Father Damien, working all alone, set out to establish a Catholic mission among the lepers, building a church with his own hands, setting up a hospital and a school, and striving to establish an orderly and moral way of daily life for the poor suffering residents of the island. You would think that a Catholic priest, who willingly gave his life to minister to people who heretofore had been spiritually abandoned altogether, would have had the full support of both the diocesan bishop and his own religious superior (Damien was a clerical member of the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a religious institute). You would be wrong.
Damien fought tooth and nail with the bishop who had authority over the Hawaiian Islands at the time—and many of their letters, which are still extant, attest to this fact. The priest made repeated requests for building materials and medicines, as well as for a second priest to assist him (and also to hear Damien’s own confessions, since his inability to receive this sacrament clearly distressed him), who never arrived. In response, the bishop—safely ensconced far away from any lepers—continuously objected that Damien’s work on the island was irritating the civil bureaucrats who governed it, because his success inadvertently highlighted their own failures. And when American Catholics heard about this brave priest and his missionary work in Moloka’i, and began sending him financial aid … the bishop criticized Damien for accepting it, as it made him, the bishop, look bad.
Damien’s religious superiors were no less unsupportive: his vice-provincial openly described Damien as
…[A] good priest, excessively devoted to the lepers. I say excessively, because he does not know how to have sober wisdom, and sometimes indiscreet zeal leads him to say, to write, and even to do things which ecclesiastical authority can only criticize … his blind zeal does not permit him to correct himself. (Quoted in Gavan Daws’ Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, p. 120)
And that was what his superior said on a good day, when he was trying to be generous! The amazing fact is, Damien’s superiors didn’t want him to dedicate himself so entirely to the poor lepers who depended on him, mostly because his conduct contrasted so dramatically with their own, far less generous ministry. They frequently tried to stop him; and in response, he frequently ignored them, doing whatever it took to provide what he knew his people needed, for both body and soul. You could say that obedience wasn’t exactly a hallmark of Damien’s ministry.
But what subsequently happened? Damien De Veuster was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, and here’s what the Pope had to say about this “disobedient” priest:
His missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity. Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who lived there, abandoned by all. Thus he was exposed to the disease from which they suffered. He felt at home with them. The servant of the Word consequently became a suffering servant, a leper with the lepers, for the last four years of his life. In order to follow Christ, Father Damien not only left his homeland but also risked his health: therefore as the word of Jesus proclaimed to us in today’s Gospel says he received eternal life (cf. Mk 10:30)…. Let us remember before this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and makes it desirable. Following in Saint Paul’s footsteps, Saint Damien prompts us to choose the good warfare (cf. 1 Tim 1:18), not the kind that brings division but the kind that gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.
Today Saint Damien is the patron of Hawaii, and his statue today stands in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. In contrast to this model of clerical self-sacrifice, his hostile superiors and their unreasonable commands are long forgotten, and they certainly will never bear the title of Saint.
Make no mistake: obeying an unjust and illegal order is not virtuous! If a priest’s superior orders him not to help the faithful who are depending on him for their spiritual needs, that priest need only look to Saint Damien for guidance on what to do. This is, after all, the whole purpose of canonizing saints: the Church holds them up to us as role models, worthy of imitation (cf. John Paul II’s 1983 Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, esp. paragraph 4).
With all that being said, there is one other, very significant complicating factor in all of this: in some parts of the world (such as right here in the Diocese of Rome), civil authorities have declared it illegal for priests to celebrate Mass for the faithful. In these places, priests who are caught saying Mass with a congregation—no matter how sparse—face arrest and imprisonment. What should parish priests do in such dire circumstances?
Once again, we can turn to events and individuals in the Church’s historical past for guidance. God alone knows the number of Catholic priests around the world, who over the centuries have had to struggle to minister to the faithful while risking arrest by a government hostile to the faith. In some nations this is still true today! How did/do these clergy react to the possibility of getting jail-time for their priestly ministry?
You don’t have to be an expert in church history to know the answer already! But let’s look at two examples of Catholic priests who courageously risked their lives—and lost them—in order to provide for the spiritual needs of the faithful.
Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro (1891-1927) was a Mexican Jesuit priest who lived during the regime of Mexican President Calles, who brutally persecuted the Catholic Church and unapologetically sought to stamp it out altogether, executing thousands of priests in the process. The young Father Pro became a master at disguising himself, successfully eluding civil authorities in order to travel around and secretly minister to the faithful. In this way he managed to celebrate Mass clandestinely and distribute Holy Communion to the people for over a year.
Eventually, the Calles regime managed to arrest Father Pro, on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to assassinate a government official. He was executed by firing squad, and at his last moment of life he famously extended his arms in the form of a cross and cried out, ¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!).
It should surprise no one that the Church subsequently beatified Miguel Pro as a martyr. Then-Pope John Paul II publicly described what he considered to have been Father Pro’s greatest achievements:
One reason for joy for the Universal Church and, especially for the Church of Mexico, is the beatification of Father Miguel Agustin Pro, a Jesuit priest whose virtues we today praise and offer to the people of God. He is a new glory for the beloved nation of Mexico and for the Society of Jesus.
His life, as an apostle full of dedication and courage, was always inspired by a tireless zeal for evangelization. Neither his suffering of severe illness, nor his untiring ministerial activity carried out frequently in painful and risky circumstances, succeeded in stifling the radiant and communicative joy that arose from his love for Christ, and which no one could take away from him (cf. John 16: 22). In fact, the deepest root of his dedication to others was his passionate love for Jesus Christ and his ardent desire to empathize with Him, even in his death.
He expressed this love in particular in the Eucharist. The daily celebration of the Holy Mass was the center of his life, as a source of strength and fervor for the faithful. Father Pro had organized so-called “Eucharistic stations” under special house arrest, where daily the body of the Lord could be secretly received during the years of persecution. In the face of Father Pro’s excellent example of priestly virtue, I would like to encourage my beloved brothers once again to dedicate themselves fully to Jesus Christ, lived joyfully in celibacy for the kingdom of heaven and in generous service to our brothers, especially the poorest and most abandoned.
At this point in history, when so many of our priests are being ordered not to celebrate Mass and give Holy Communion to the faithful, there shouldn’t be any need to explain how Blessed Miguel Pro’s life and martyrdom should serve as a model for Catholic clergy today. The message is perfectly obvious.
No discussion of the heroism of priests in times of civil persecution would be complete without mentioning the hundreds of English martyrs, who died in the Catholic persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. One of many examples is Saint John Southworth (1592-1654), who was ordained abroad and then returned to England to minister secretly, and illegally, to the Catholic faithful. Years later, he was caught, arrested, and condemned to death; but for unclear reasons Father Southworth was set free about 1636, whereupon he promptly began visiting English victims of the plague (!), to administer the sacraments—thereby risking not only re-arrest, but possible contagion as well.
After being caught and condemned again to death, he was hanged, drawn and quartered in London. (If you don’t know what it actually means to be “hanged, drawn and quartered,” this explanation is well worth a read, to understand what English Catholic priests were facing when they engaged in illegal ministry. And be sure to check out the pictures!) Today, the relics of Saint John Southworth are honored in Westminster Cathedral—the Catholic cathedral in London, not to be confused with non-Catholic Westminster Abbey—and Catholics praying at his tomb are a common sight.
Contrast the actions of these priest-martyrs, if you can bear it, with messages like this one, informing the Catholic faithful that “The Sunday and weekday Masses are cancelled for your protection by order of the Archdiocese” (emphasis added) … and draw your own conclusions.
The saints we’ve just discussed were true shepherds, not hired hands, and like their divine Model, the Good Shepherd, they gave their lives for their sheep. There is, once again, a good reason why the Catholic Church honors them as saints—and presents them to us as role models to be emulated.
Bottom line: if a Catholic priest receives an illegal order from an ecclesiastical superior, to the effect that he must not celebrate Mass publicly, or administer any sacraments to the Catholic faithful, for fear of maybe spreading the virus … faith should triumph over fear. And if the civil government forbids a priest from ministering to the people under threat of arrest, the answer is the same.
Now, nobody is suggesting that in areas which have become hot-spots for the virus, everyone should crowd into church for Sunday Mass exactly as usual. As was already discussed above, many people may consider themselves dispensed from their Sunday obligation; and to the extent that it’s possible to sit far apart, avoid coughing on others, refrain from shaking hands, etc., it’s only prudent to take these precautions.
But what a frighteningly high number of bishops and parish priests seem to be losing complete sight of is the fact that God is the Lord and Creator of all, and has complete power over this and any other virus! For a person of faith, does it make sense to fear that God will reward our trust in Him, by letting parishioners who confidently come to Mass catch the virus there? As Our Lord Himself said, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matt. 8:26)
In those areas of the world where the civil government will not hesitate to arrest those priests who dare to offer Mass for the faithful (here’s a heart-breaking example up in Brescia, Italy, where the anti-Catholic mayor of the city personally busted into a parish church for a “routine check”), it is naturally far more difficult for parish clergy to minister to all the members of their parishes as usual. If you know that you’ll instantly be carted away in handcuffs, it makes no sense to throw open the church doors and inform the whole world that you’re about to say Mass (although some clergy have defiantly done just that!); this will likely do little except to leave your entire parish bereft of their priest. But that doesn’t mean a cleric should simply throw up his hands and do nothing; it means that he can only do as much as he humanly can. Watch what this parish priest in northern Italy did to help the people of his parish. Strictly speaking, he could have been charged by the police for violating the terms of the national lockdown, because he and his assistant were on the streets for what was technically an “unauthorized” purpose; yet as you can see they were unmolested—perhaps because God Himself was with them.
It’s time for our parish clergy to think outside the box! In this delightful twitter thread you can see how ordinary Italians are figuring out ways to pass their enforced time indoors, enjoying some good clean fun. And here’s a lovely story about an elderly lady being entertained (safely) by her next-door neighbor children, who get points for creativity. If the Church can make the same sort of effort to come up with clever work-arounds, surely our parish clergy will be able to find ways to reach as many people as they can, and as frequently as they can.
On March 15, Pope Francis gave his regular Sunday Angelus address via livestream from inside the Vatican. For unknown reasons, his messages to clergy (like this March 13 letter to the priests of Rome) don’t seem to be getting much attention lately—and in this case, the English translation is still missing from the Vatican website. But the Pope spoke directly to the parish clergy, and made pretty obvious reference to the fact that at least some of them are indeed heroically ignoring episcopal orders and threats of arrest by civil authorities, in order to minister to the faithful:
I would also like to thank all priests, the creativity of priests. A lot of news is coming from Lombardy about this creativity. Yes, Lombardy has been very badly hit. Priests who think of a thousand ways to be close to the people, so that the people do not feel abandoned; priests with Apostolic zeal, who have understood well that in times of pandemic, one mustn’t be a “Don Abbondio.” Thank you so much to you priests. (My translation)
Think about that for a moment: the Pope is praising priests who disobey the (illegal) directives of their bishops.
If you’re Italian, you understand perfectly the Pope’s reference to “Don Abbondio,” a fictional character in Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel I Promessi Sposi (often translated as The Betrothed). Abbondio is a parish priest in a tiny Italian village, and has already arranged to celebrate the wedding of two young peasants—but when the wealthy lord of the manor decides he wants to sleep with the bride-to-be himself, he orders the priest to cancel the wedding. Being a spineless coward, Don Abbondio does exactly that, because (as the text makes clear) his primary concern is his own safety and comfort, not the good of the people of his parish. The priest’s craven refusal to marry the couple causes a chain-reaction of tragic events, negatively affecting the lives of numerous people. In short, the Pope was telling Catholic clergy, “Man up and serve your people, don’t behave like that!”
By now, the message to Catholic parish clergy should be clear. Your responsibility to minister to the faithful entrusted to your care, by celebrating Mass for them and administering the sacraments, trumps any illegal order by a superior, or any threats by civil authorities. The people of the parish need you, so when they ask you to minister to them, do it.
JUST DO IT.
In the meantime, we lay Catholics need to pray for our clergy as never before. (Here’s a terrific website, with an ongoing 54-day rosary novena for this intention.) Mary, Queen of the clergy, pray for us! Lord, give us many holy priests!