ROSARIO, Argentina – A seminary located in the heart of Argentina’s famous Mendoza wine region was ordered closed by the local bishop following instructions from the Vatican after a revolt over COVID-19 safety measures.

The Diocese of San Rafael is home of the largest diocesan seminary in Argentina, with 39 students studying for the priesthood. The diocese, together with the government of the province of Mendoza, decreed that as a safety precautions, Communion would only be delivered in the hand for the duration of the pandemic.

However, most of the priesthood and laity in the diocese protested the measure, with the seminary seen seen as leading the campaign against the decision taken by Bishop Eduardo Maria Taussig.

Considered a conservative himself, Taussig is a friend of Archbishop Hector Aguer, emeritus of La Plata who observers have described as once being the main nemesis of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

However, writing in the Spanish blog Info Catolica, Aguer revealed that he’d spoken with Taussig over the phone twice, and blames the bishop for the crisis.

“I deeply regret what has happened in San Rafael, because of a very serious mistake of yours: The decree on the way of receiving Communion. I’ve expressed my opinion to you both times you called me on the phone,” the archbishop claimed.

Though bishops’ conferences around the world have advised priests to give Communion in the hand during public Masses during the pandemic, the Vatican hasn’t issued instructions on the matter.

Critics of these instructions say there is no scientific evidence that if the priest is properly wearing a face mask and has thoroughly disinfected his hands before distributing the Eucharist, the risk of contagion is higher if received on the tongue rather than in the hand.

The rebel priests argue that the faithful have the right to receive Communion on the tongue, and that both methods of reception are available for the faithful who go to Mass in the diocese.

After the priests of the Diocese of San Rafael revolted against Taussig’s decision, the bishop decided to close the seminary – a move backed by the Vatican.

A July 27 statement announced that a new rector had been appointed by Taussig, that he would take over effective immediately, and that “in introducing the new Rector to the priests and seminarians, [the bishop] has also communicated to them that, following precise instructions from the Holy See, he has made the decision to close the Seminary at the end of this year, once the school year has ended.”

The communique also announced that the bishop, rector and formators would accompany the seminarians on a journey of “discernment” so that they can be relocated in other seminaries throughout Argentina.

“The measure, although very painful for everyone, is necessary,” the statement reads. “God will know how to give new fruits of holiness to the entire Diocese, while we persevere in the communion with the Hierarchy that the Lord Himself has arranged to guide the Church.”

Two days later, Father Antonio Alvare,  the spokesman for the Diocese of San Rafael, told local TV station TVA El Nevado that the decision was taken by the Holy See due to the disobedience of most of the clergy in San Rafael when it comes to giving Communion in the hand.

San Rafael has 100,000 citizens, and since the pandemic hit Argentina in March, the city has registered just six positive cases of COVID-19, with no deaths reported.

Alvarez argued that, with so many priests openly defying the authority of the bishop, it was impossible to find suitable formators for the seminary among the local clergy.

A priest quoted by the local newspaper Los Andes argued that they’re not being disobedient to the Church by giving Communion on the tongue to those who ask for it, because the universal Church law allows the practice. He also said that there are ways to comply with the health safety measures that do not undermine the right of the faithful.

Before the decision to close the seminary was announced – right after the quarantine became more flexible in Mendoza – Taussig said Communion would only be received in the hand until the emergency was over, and “strongly” asked the faithful not to force the priests or ministers to deny them the sacrament by asking to receive it in on the tongue.

“I beg you not to put them before the terrible pain of, for obeying the Church and the current norms, not being able to give you communion,” the bishop asked. “If anyone is not in a position to receive communion in hand, know that he is not obliged to receive communion and can make spiritual communion.”

Álvarez, the diocesan spokesperson, criticize the protesters – who at a point defied Argentina’s law against gatherings during a pandemic by kneeling as a group in prayer in front of the seminary – saying that a public protest was not the way to go.

“One can disagree and request, but there are ways to do it,” he said. “You cannot expect permission to do something that is prohibited by civil law. And the restriction of constitutional rights in a pandemic is legitimate.”

The priest pointed out that “a month ago, we couldn’t even participate in the Mass because there is a pandemic,” and noted that Mendoza’s 30-person cap for religious events is higher than the national level of 10 people.

Argentina’s bishops conference released a statement on Saturday supporting Taussig and his decision.

“In priestly formation, the bishop must be able to count on the help of Gospel-animated priests, who fully and unreservedly accept the teachings of the Church’s Magisterium, especially those contained in the Second Vatican Council,” the statement reads.

“That requires a clear awareness of the current expectations of the Church: that they adhere faithfully to the demands indicated in the Priestly Formation Plan, in a climate of loyalty with the pastor of the diocese and a careful responsibility of the young men entrusted to him.”

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