The day after announcing that parishes in Minnesota can ignore a statewide order on religious gatherings, the Archbishop of St Paul and Minneapolis explained the pastoral motive for his decision.
Catholics “really depend on the Eucharist to get through the challenges of their lives,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda told reporters May 21.
“The reception of the Eucharist is extremely important,” the archbishop added. “We can’t have the opportunity for communion by livestreaming.”
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Hebda said the May 20 decision of Minnesota’s bishops to ignore a prohibition of religious gatherings of more than 10 people was a pastoral decision.
“We have this responsibility to take care of the spiritual needs of our people,” Hebda said.
The bishops said that parishes can open for Mass next week, if attendance is no more than 33% of building capacity, and if parishes follow rigorous sanitary and liturgical protocols designed in consultation with public health experts.
Missouri Synod Lutherans in Minnesota have also announced that services will resume under similar strictures.
Speaking on Thursday, Hebda said that he had not had the opportunity to speak with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz in the days leading up to the bishops’ decision, but that he would be doing so on Thursday. Walz said last night that he would be speaking to the state’s bishops alongside state public health authorities.
“These are very challenging times, and I recognize that he has a very difficult job,” Hebda said of the governor. “We want to help all of Minnesota get through this pandemic. I look forward to our conversation, but I can tell you I hope the governor changes his mind.”
It is not clear whether priests or bishops who begin celebrating public Masses next week could face civil penalties. Hebda said his “hope is that there won’t be a conflict, and that we will come to some kind of agreement.”
“I’m hoping that when we actually have this opportunity to speak with the governor that we might find more common ground,” he added.
The archbishop also said he believes the bishops are “on solid footing” from a legal perspective. On May 20, Becket Law, a religious liberty advocacy law firm, sent Walz a letter laying out a legal case arguing that Minnesota’s Catholic and Lutheran parishes have First Amendment protections ensuring continued public worship.
In a California fight over reopening churches, federal Department of Justice officials intervened this week, to argue that unless states can prove that churches pose some specific risk for spreading the virus, they can’t be held to more stringent measures than other places of public assembly.
In Minnesota, retail businesses will be permitted to open at 50% capacity on June 1, salons and tattoo parlors will reopen, and restaurants will gradually reopen.
On Thursday, Hebda said equality in law is important.
“Obviously, part of our faith is that we want to respect always legitimate civil authority, so that’s one of the reasons why we have really been trying to reach out to the govern and his administration to explain the needs of our Church, which are kind of particular,” Hebda told reporters,
“And really as we’ve seen other openings and plans for other openings, it makes us feel much more comfortable with what we’re doing, because we see a parallel that’s there and we see that we need to be treated equally.”
There has not yet been any official response from the apostolic nuncio in the United States or from the Holy See to the Minnesota announcement. Officials at the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis have not yet answered questions from CNA about whether Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative in the U.S., had been consulted before the bishops announced their decision.
When Italian bishops raised objections in late April to continued strictures on public Masses in the country, Pope Francis did not address the matter directly, but did praise the virtue of obedience at a Mass a few days later.
For his part, Hebda acknowledged that no sanitary precautions are enough to completely stem the spread of the virus, and acknowledged that a parish outside Minneapolis had announced on May 20 that at least one priest in the community had tested positive for the coronavirus.
But the archbishop said he appreciated the speed and clarity with which the parish had made the announcement. And he emphasized the risk inherent to life in a global pandemic.
“We’re living in a dangerous time and we can expect that we’re going to have priests and faithful who are infected with COVID, that’s going to be part of life, what’s important is how we handle that,” Hebda said.
“I think we can expect in all dimensions of life, right now, that there are those risks that are there.” Even in the supermarket, he said, “there’s always that risk.”
More than 800 people have died of the coronavirus in Minnesota, and more than 18,000 have been diagnosed with it. Nearly 100,000 people have been recorded dead from the virus across the U.S., with more than 1.6 million positive coronavirus tests.
To Hebda, the difficulty of the pandemic emphasizes the need for pastoral ministry.
“Please remember, we bishops have a solemn duty, really a responsibility, to provide spiritual care and religious services to our faithful, and that responsibility includes doing it in a way that is safe and responsible,” the archbishop said.
Hebda told reporters about a man who had managed a years-long recovery from addictions.
“What makes that possible is that he goes to Mass every morning and receives communion,” the archbishop said.
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