Along with a widespread threat of illness and death, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has also introduced into the Catholic world controversy and disagreement over the availability of sacraments during this worldwide crisis.
As with many services in the business community at this time, services in the Catholic Church have been curtailed or canceled in the name of public safety. Across the United States and around the world, access to daily and Sunday Masses has been almost universally reduced to televised Masses. Access to sacraments of the Church — most notably Confession, Holy Communion and even, in many areas, Anointing of the Sick — has been restricted or suspended.
Dr. Janet Smith, former professor of moral theology at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, is deeply concerned that Catholics need the sacraments, perhaps now more than ever. Dr. Smith penned a request in the form of an online petition titled “We Are an Easter People,” calling upon the bishops to make all the sacraments as available as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Smith’s open letter implores the bishops to consider several requests. Initially, the letter included nine requests, including a request that bishops demand that civil authorities recognize religious services as essential; that the same authorities permit public celebration of the Mass in parking lots if that is prohibited; and that the bishops make possible a public Mass, especially on Easter Sunday, and that they themselves celebrate a public Mass on Easter.
A later version of the letter included not nine, but the following three requests of the bishops:
– To find ways that you and your priests can provide the Anointing of the Sick, especially to those at risk of dying.
– If a state or local government prohibits priests from ministering to the sick in the hospital or in their homes, to make a personal and formal request of civic leaders to permit such minister with assurances that all due precautions will be taken. Urge them to recognize religious services as essential services.
– To inform your flock of what you have done and hope to do.
Twenty-two prominent Catholic thinkers, writers and educators concurred with Dr. Smith that they need greater access to the sacraments during this pandemic, and joined the effort as Project Endorsers. And Catholics in the pews agreed: As of Thursday evening, April 2, more than 4,000 Catholics had added their signatures to the open letter at the website We Are an Easter People; and another 8,600 had signed the petition at lifepetitions.com. Believing that the Church exists for the people she serves, especially in the most difficult of times, these Catholics are petitioning the bishops of this country to make available the sacraments that have been so much a part of their daily lives. “It is not an exaggeration,” Smith wrote in the introduction to her letter, “to say that the health of the world and the salvation of souls depends upon it.”
The Urgent Need for Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick
Citing a March 13 letter from the Vatican reflecting on the need for the sacraments in a time of crisis, Smith’s open letter implores the bishops especially to make every attempt to enable priests to minister to the sick and dying. “While not having access to the sacraments is always difficult, it is especially devastating not to have access to the Anointing of the Sick when a lethal pestilence is ravaging our world,” the letter contends.
Aware that “many states, hospitals, and even bishops are forbidding priests to attend to those afflicted with COVID-19,” the petition urges that every attempt be made to enable priests to minister to the sick and dying.
Protecting Priests, Respecting Civil Authorities
“We know many of our priests are eager to attend to those with COVID-19 and are willing to put their lives at risk. We admire their willingness to suffer and possibly to experience martyrdom. We treasure our priests beyond all telling, and do not want to lose any of them, and without question support measures to keep them safe. We urge bishops to assure that all priests who attend to those with COVID-19 to have Personal Protective Equipment and follow all sanitizing procedures. Most importantly, we promise to cover our courageous holy priests in prayer.”
Dr. Smith noted that there are times when the state can impose restrictions, and one of those times is when there is danger in personal interaction. “But,” she added:
…we need to start with the right principle. Religion is an essential service – It is not just like a sporting event or concert that entertains us, that we can take or leave. The purpose of life is to be in a right relationship with the Lord. The sacraments are essential means of sustaining that relationship. If we can still worship and provide sacraments, and do so within the directives for safety, it is important that we be allowed to do so.
Hope for a Positive Response
Asked whether she had received any response as yet from the bishops, Dr. Smith said no — but added that she hadn’t really expected to hear so quickly. “Bishops take some time to respond,” she acknowledged. And Smith repeated a hope she had stated online:
I have been asked what response I hope for. This is not what I expect but what I hope for (and I hope for miracles): I hope bishops will say, ‘Thank you so much for this courteous open letter. We love hearing from the laity about their spiritual needs and how we might be able to meet them. This was an effective way to get our attention. We will be trying as hard as we can to assess what we can do of the things you request and will communicate more with you about what we are doing and why.’
Source: National Catholic Register
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