WHEN Pope Francis announced hearing Masses be done online as a measure against Covid-19 contamination, the sun over the Vatican turned into something that looked like the Holy Eucharist that could be stared at without hurting the eyes. Video footages of this can be accessed on YouTube.
Since then, Catholics all over the world had to content themselves with online Sunday Masses, deprived of the actual Eucharist and rather importantly, of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession in these times when life has become too fragile because of a virulent virus. It is during our times that we need Confession most, yet the Sacrament has been brought far away from us.
In the U.S. which has become the epicenter of Covid-19, some priests have insisted on encouraging people to attend Masses in person, although al fresco in their cars in parking areas. In the Philippines, I hope something like this could be done, perhaps without the cars that most Filipinos don’t have, but also in wide open spaces where physical distancing can be observed. In Angeles, there is the Astro Park. In Mabalacat, the Our Lady of Grace Church has wide open space in front.
Quite notably, the governor of Texas recently classified religious services as “essential” in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic.
When my uncle Archbishop Emeritus Ramon Arguelles of Lipa learned about this, he wrote the following in our family Messenger chat room:
“So nice to hear these news from Texas which is the first state to close abortion clinics since they aren’t really offering health services. It is regrettable though that bishops/priests have to adopt to government policies instead of the other way. The State by the constitution must respect religious freedom. All should do everything to assure everyone’s total wellbeing.”
And here was the news from Texas that he was reacting to:
“A Texas bishop today reversed his Sunday order banning priests from hearing confessions after the Governor of Texas deemed churches as ‘essential services’ on Tuesday.
“No priests are to make themselves available to hear Confessions,” Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, Texas, had originally ordered priests within his Diocese in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Coerver noted in an April 2 statement that Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday ‘with which we are to comply in carrying out what he defined as our ‘essential services’ as Church.’
“The bishop had banned confessions without any explicit directive to do so. The bishop said in his Sunday statement, however, that he had banned confession because Mayor Don Pope had issued a stay-in-place order.
“In his executive order, Abbot encouraged essential services be provided ‘through remote telework,’ but said that if religious services ‘cannot be conducted from home or through remote services,’ they should be conducted consistent with the guidelines from the president and the CDC by “practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“ The order mentioned not only the ‘providing’ of essential services, for instance a priest saying Mass, but also the “obtaining.” Accordingly, Catholics are now in a position to go to church and receive the sacraments, as long as due precautions are taken.
“The governor offered as an example a ‘drive-up service’ where people remain in their cars, according to Texas news outlet KBTX.TV.
“‘That seems like it would satisfy the criteria that we're talking about,’ he said.
“Abbott also prohibited local authorities from going beyond what he had deemed permissible restrictions, citing religious services as an example, KBTX.TV reported.
“So to the extent, for example, that religious services are permitted as specified in this executive order, they cannot be denied by a local ordinance under this order," said Abbott.
“Coerver said he and “most of the Bishops of Texas” took part in a conference call Wednesday, and decided to keep Masses private. (There are 15 dioceses in Texas and about 17 active bishops and auxiliary bishops, as well as a number of retired bishops.)
“While Abbott designated churches as essential services, ‘we are still under orders to carry out such services in keeping with the national guidelines set forth by the federal government,’ Coerver said.
“That includes gatherings of no more than ten people who must keep the “social distance” between them of least six feet.
“‘In keeping with those guidelines, there is a consensus among the Bishops of Texas that the practice of only private Masses be continued, hopefully live-streamed, with only needed liturgical ministers and video technicians present, never to exceed a total of 10 persons (counting the priest),’ Coerver stated.
“'Due to the danger of contagion, Holy Communion cannot be distributed to persons not within the church building,’ he added, leaving open the possibility that Holy Communion could be distributed without the church building.
“The bishops also discussed ‘the sensitive issue of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation,’ he said.
“While about 30 dioceses across the country have suspended confession, Coerver’s March 29 directive, which he issued in response to a stay-in-place order by Lubbock’s mayor, was notable in that he made no exception for Catholics in danger of imminent death.
“In his April 2 statement, Coerver said he has now decided to implement the ‘best practice’ for Confession which the bishops discussed on the conference call.
“‘Given the situation of pervasive fear and serious illness, any member of the Faithful in serious need of making a Confession can contact a priest to make an appointment to have their Confession heard,’ he said.
“‘The Sacrament must be celebrated either outside or in a large well-ventilated space, with ‘social distancing’ scrupulously observed,’ Coerver said..
“‘I am asking our good priests, who have made so many concessions and adaptations on behalf of our Faithful, to now make themselves available in this manner to penitents who are experiencing grave necessity for Confession.’”