BALTIMORE — Acknowledging the pain that the world is experiencing as the novel coronavirus claims thousands of lives and disrupts everyday routines, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said he wants nothing more than to open wide the doors to churches, but such a step is impossible given “the massive public health threat we are facing.”
“We have to respond reasonably to this, but at the same time recognize that the moment will come when we will be able to get back together and to celebrate together. I look forward to that day,” he said.
The archbishop met with members of the Baltimore media April 7 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — with appropriate social distancing — to discuss Holy Week, Easter and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on parishes.
He said most of the correspondence he has received about the closing of churches has been supportive, with people recognizing the archdiocese is conforming to the letter and the spirit of the law.
“The spirit of the law is to protect people. We want to celebrate this Easter, but I want as many people as possible to celebrate many more Easters. And so, for that reason, we have taken these extraordinary steps,” he said, to suspend all public Masses during the holiest week in the church’s calendar.
Masses throughout the archdiocese are being celebrated by parish priests without the presence of the faithful.
Lori said some people always will disagree with the church closings, and he respects their opinion because it represents “a hunger for the sacraments, a hunger to worship, a hunger to listen to the word of God with the community of faith, a hunger to celebrate the great events of our salvation.”
He said he hopes that as Catholics go through such an extraordinary time, they will develop a greater appreciation for the value, meaning and importance of worshipping together in church.
Parishes will continue to follow deep-cleaning guidelines recommended by public health professionals so that when churches reopen, they will be as safe as possible, he added.
As the virus peaks and incidences of COVID-19 decline, restrictions on public gatherings may loosen.
“We’ll have to see what guidance we get because we want to be a good citizen. We want to keep people safe. And we want to make sure that when we do reopen, it is perfectly safe for everybody to be together,” Lori said.
He praised the work of priests who have been livestreaming Masses and finding other ways to reach out to their flocks, including sending messages of support and hope.
In addition to technological options, the archbishop said some parishes have used phone trees to allow parishioners to connect with each other. Putting together a group of volunteers to call parishioners can encourage personal contact even when people cannot be together physically.
“Saying quite simply, ‘How are you? What do you need? If you live alone, are you doing all right?’ If you’re elderly, if you’re vulnerable, that means so much to people,” he said.
Acknowledging this Lent has been very trying, Lori said God can help make sense of events in life, even the ones where through which people struggle. “God will pull good out of evil,” he said. “God pulls joy out of suffering. God pulls life out of death.
“That’s really what we celebrate in Holy Week, where you see the Lord on the cross and you think it’s an execution, it’s a defeat, it’s death. But really, that was the door opening to new life and to grace and to goodness and to sanctity and to generosity of spirit,” he explained.
The archbishop noted the pandemic has led to a difficult financial time for the archdiocese and its parishes, but that online giving and other relief packages, including loans available from the Knights of Columbus and the U.S. Small Business Administration, will help. “A lot of people have been stepping up to the plate very generously and graciously,” he said.
The archdiocese also put together a relief package for parishes and schools worth about $7 million by deferring some of the payments normally due for retirement and health costs.
Asked whether some parishes might not be able to survive the downturn, the archbishop said he doesn’t want any parish to close by default.
“We’re doing our level best to sustain our parishes,” he said.
Lori will celebrate Holy Week and Easter services at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, which will be livestreamed. The cathedral’s website is https://www.cathedralofmary.org. The online broadcasts since churches were closed have attracted large numbers of viewers.
“Our churches are usually very packed on Sunday, but through livestreaming, I’ve discovered I’m actually reaching a lot more people than I usually do on a Sunday,” he said. On several occasions, more devices were tuned into the Sunday Mass at the cathedral than there are seats in the church, one of the largest in the archdiocese.
Gunty is associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the media arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.