WASHINGTON, D.C. — The bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, said it’s his “aspiration” that churches reopen for Pentecost, May 31, “even with a limited number of worshippers if necessary.”
In an April 20 pastoral message to his diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin addressed questions of worship, financial questions, and the future need for evangelization and outreach. Many of those questions still have no answers, he said.
He said that from the beginning of the pandemic, though he had ” had some very serious personal reservations about some of the things we were asked to do, I didn’t want to be a confrontational, divisive voice during this time of crisis.”
He said it was heartbreaking to suspend all public worship and to severely limit access to church buildings just before and leading up to Holy Week.
“I made a conscious decision to be a ‘good citizen’ and to cooperate with public officials in every way possible, primarily because of our mutual and serious obligation to protect the health and safety of our fellow citizens in ways determined by health experts,” he wrote. “Some have asked why I haven’t been more outspoken and defiant in responding to the restrictions imposed upon us.”
But he said he felt the “heavy responsibility of setting a good example for others.”
“There has been some consolation in the fact that these restrictions have been experienced by the church throughout our nation and around the globe, including the venerable Vatican itself,” he said.
He recognized there is uncertainty about the future, from the opening of churches to possible restrictions and how a “new normal” will affect the various aspects of community life for parishes.
Simply put, at this point, we don’t have the answer to all of these questions,” he said.
When it comes to finances, “it is abundantly clear that the coronavirus crisis has had and will have a devastating impact on the financial health of the local church — for the diocese and its related organizations, and for our parishes and schools. But here again, there are more questions than answers.”
The only thing that’s clear is the Providence Diocese will not be the same after the crisis, he wrote.
Some parishioners, he said, have continued to financially support their local churches but fundraising efforts will be made, he said, while recognizing that many parishioners will have been affected adversely financially.
He said that it looks as if large-scale, festive celebrations will have to be deferred for a time.
“I hope that the baptism of catechumens and the reception into the church of other candidates, normally held at the Easter Vigil, can be carried out in the very near future. It’s very important that we not interrupt, for even a single minute more than necessary, the journey of faith that our catechumens and candidates have traveled,” he said.
But the “new normal” will present challenges and opportunities for the church, he said.
“This time of quarantine and social distancing has no doubt been a humbling experience for all of us. I wonder if it has also purified us. We’ve grown accustomed to wearing masks in public, but I wonder if the experience has also unmasked our rather casual complacency,” he said. “Has it challenged our smug presumption that the church and the sacraments will always be there for us? Has it reordered our priorities and re-awakened our thirst for God?”
He asked the faithful to “resolve to turn the coronavirus crisis into a moment of purification, rebirth and renewal for the entire church. It’s something we should start talking about and planning for right now.”
He said he looks forward to “being with co-workers at the office once again; to the routine of daily mail and meetings at the office; to the normal morning traffic jams on 195 W; to the possibility of traveling to Pittsburgh to visit ailing family members; to watching the Red Sox on TV and, last but not least … seeing Tom Brady take the field in a Tampa Bay uniform.”
He ended the letter with hope for the day when congregations will be together again.
“But most of all I’m looking forward to that day when our church family will be reunited so that the normal, daily, essential work of the church can resume,” Tobin said. “I look forward to being with you once again for pastoral visits, Holy Mass, the celebration of the sacraments, and special parish and school events. And, pray God, that day will come very, very soon!”