ROSARIO, Argentina – After a video of the faithful asking the bishops to “give us back the Mass” after public liturgical celebrations were suspended to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, several Argentine prelates answered with one saying that they found the campaign to be “noise.”
As requests to reopen churches multiply across Latin America, most bishops insist that “Church is not closed,” but disagree on what’s the best way to proceed, with most simply following civil authorities.
Bishop Eduardo Garcia of San Justo, Argentina, said that the video made “noise, a lot of noise.”
In a op-ed in Clarin, one of the country’s major daily newspapers, he said that in this time of COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, “the Church and Christians must bear witness of generous dedication moved by love to those who suffer most, creating environments of calm, service and hope.”
“With regard to the coronavirus, it seems that the suspension of activities, including public religious service, not for the Mass itself,” to prevent the possible infection of the congregation, is seen by some as “arbitrary, when it is not,” he wrote.
“At this time, more than ever, the words of Pope Francis apply: ‘the Church as a field hospital.’ Perhaps because I am looking at it from the social reality of my diocese located in La Matanza where, although the cases of coronavirus are still few, we have to assume and carry out the quarantine in our most vulnerable neighborhoods as best we can,” Garcia said.
La Matanza is a county located in Greater Buenos Aires. It’s the largest city outside of Buenos Aires, and home to many of Argentina’s slums.
Garcia argues that even though he respects the “anguish experienced by many people because they cannot receive Communion,” he was also amazed by it and wondered if these same people experience a similar anguish because “they cannot go out to help in a first aid room or an elderly person who is isolated.”
“I also heard that they feel that their faith is weakened by not being able to receive Communion and I wonder: The imprisoned martyrs of the last century and this century who could not access Mass in their captivity and gave their lives, how did they do it? Because their faith was robust to accept floggings, hunger, humiliation and death,” he said. “God never leaves us alone.”
García also wrote that he firmly believes in the presence of God in the Eucharist, “center and culmination of the Christian life,” but also in a community that “celebrates and takes strength to live their lives at service of others,” not seeing the Sacraments as a “self-service of grace or vitamin C of spiritual life.”
“The gradual reopening of the temples will be of little use if there is no radical reopening of the Church in the face of reality, without self-centered pseudo-religious complacency,” he said.
In Brazil, a country that is still seeing the growth in the number of daily deaths due to the coronavirus grow, the government has decided that in some states, churches can be re-opened and Masses can resume. But in these cases, a strict series of measures have to be followed. Though they differ in the various regions, all include the mandatory use of a face mask, a limit of 30 percent capacity, and the mandatory use of hand sanitizer.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, the secretary general of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Alfonso Miranda, on Twitter recommended an article in the periodical Vida Nueva written by Antonio Gómez Cantero of Teruel and Albarracín in Spain.
In the article, titled “Fearful Episcopal Prudence,” the Spanish bishop disputed claims on social media that by closing churches, the government is imposing “radical secularism” on the Christian community.
“Secularism is not imposed,” he wrote. “Not even in the dictatorially atheistic countries have they been able to destroy the Christian communities.”
Gómez also wrote that some priests have asked him to reopen “parishes,” refusing to use the word “church” because “the Church is in each one of us all and is still open.”
“We are the Body of Christ! Although I don’t know if we have fully believed that,” Gómez said. “Surely if we prayed a little more about this mystery, we would be more community, despite the fact that our parishes remain closed due to this unforeseen … pandemic.”
“This is not a matter of fearful episcopal prudence, but of an exceptionality to preserve public health, of all,” he wrote. “I can give freedom for the parish priest who wishes to open his temple (and I am sure that some, out of zeal, would do so) but that is running away from my pastoral responsibility. And I don’t want some people to tell me: ‘If they open, God is going to help us!’ That is tempting God. Your responsibility is to fulfill the fifth commandment: You will not kill, do not harm yourself or others.”
The bishop also said that he too is hurt by the fact that church buildings are closed and that family members cannot say goodbye to their loved ones, as they would want; however, he said this an exceptional period, “a time of crossing the desert.”
The bishops of the Dominican Republic also assured the people that the Church is “not closed.”
In a letter released late last week, the leadership of the local bishops conference also called on those who live in the Caribbean nation to observe the rules regarding social distancing: Staying at home when indicated by authorities, wearing gloves, washing their hands regularly and using face masks.
Meanwhile in Paraguay, Archbishop Edmundo Valenzuela of Asuncion, the country’s capital, was less cautious about COVID-19.
Celebrating the feast of the Divine Mercy during the second Sunday of Easter, he called for the faithful to be allowed back to Mass soon, because the communal dimension of the Church cannot be “lived through virtual Eucharists.”
Christ’s resurrection, he said, marks the beginning of a new history that challenges human logic and calls on faith, to understand God’s opening to humankind.
“In an opposite way to the trust in God’s mercy, the pandemic and the isolation have led to negative changes in the population,” Valenzuela said. “It has destabilized society; we consider one another a danger to each other. We hide behind a fabric, with mistrust, preventing the contagion that could come from those who are next to me.”
For these reasons, he called for a return to the public celebration of the Mass: “More than ever, the Church needs to recover the experience of community. We cannot live on virtual Eucharist.”
“The Church has as much strength to heal as doctors: They heal the body, but it is not enough,” Valenzuela argued. “The mission of the Church, which means community, is to bring people together to meet, feel loved, pray and celebrate together the mysteries of our faith.”
“We must return as soon as possible to the celebration of the sacraments, especially that of reconciliation and that of the Eucharist. We must return as soon as possible to that life of the Church,” he said.
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