Acknowledging the painful and difficult time for the world, the number of those succumbing to illnesses caused by the novel coronavirus, and the disruption it has caused in so many lives, Archbishop William E. Lori said he wants nothing more than to open wide the doors to churches in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but that the church has to recognize “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 talk about 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 that 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 are celebrated by parish priests without the presence of the faithful.
The archbishop said there are always some who disagree with the church closings and that he respects their opinion because at its base is something he feels as well: “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 this extraordinary time, they will develop a greater appreciation for the value, meaning and importance of worshipping together in church.
The archbishop said parishes have been following and will continue to follow deep-cleaning guidelines recommended by public health professionals so that when churches reopen, they will be as safe as possible.
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,” Archbishop Lori said.
He praised the work of priests of the archdiocese who have been livestreaming Masses and finding other ways to reach out to their flocks, including sending messages of support and hope.
The archdiocese created a page of resources for “At Home with Your Faith” for families to use while they stay in place to help them rediscover each other.
“That’s an opportunity for families to pray together, to eat together and to share together and to support each other,” the archbishop said. “We want our faith to make its way, perhaps as never before, into the family circle.”
In addition to technological options, the archbishop said some parishes have used phone trees – an option that could have been done in the 1940s and ’50s. 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 that this Lent has been very trying, Archbishop Lori said that God can help make sense of all events of our lives, even the ones where we struggle. “God will pull good out of evil. 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 said.
He said Pope Francis’ special Urbi et Orbi blessing (To the Church and the World) March 27 was very poignant. “To see the pope virtually alone in St. Peter’s Square really dramatized the devastating effect of this coronavirus. But at the same time, the Holy Father also dramatized the hope that is ours as people of faith,” the archbishop said.
He noted that this is 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.
Archbishop Lori will celebrate Holy Week and Easter services at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, which will be livestreamed. He said he is learning to do better each time, even though the webcast puts a little more pressure on the celebrant. “A live crowd, when you’re looking at them, tends to be a little more forgiving,” he said. “The unblinking eye of a camera? Not so forgiving.”
On the other hand, he may be reaching more people than usual. “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.
For more on the archdiocesan response to the pandemic, click here.