A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
DAVID Quinn of the Iona Institute (also a journalist with the Sunday Times and The Irish Catholic) claims that the Irish bishops are acting like glorified health and safety officers. He was exercised about bishops being so passive and compliant and not protesting about the ‘outrageous’ restrictions on Catholics who will not be allowed to return to Mass until July 20 (the fourth phase of the roadmap to reopening of society.) Quinn and Michael Kelly (editor of the Irish Catholic) are leading the charge of the ‘right’(wing) brigade, exhorting bishops to effectively politicise this pandemic and demand an earlier re-opening of churches for Sunday Eucharist. He condemns them for being excessively cautious. They claim it is a denial of the right to freedom of worship and religion.
‘I am abhorred at the likes of Quinn and other right wing journalists who argue in this manner. As I was most likely infected with Covid-19 in the course of my pastoral duties, I am aware of how contagious and how infective this virus is.’
Quinn goes so far as to argue that bishops are being unfaithful to the great tradition of caring for the sick, a key dimension of the Christian faith. Revisiting history, he recalls the heroic witness of priests during the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages when 45 per cent of priests died after becoming infected while ministering to the sick. Presumably he is inferring that bishops and priests today lack this heroic spirit of martyrdom. “A priest,” he claims, “is supposed to be a shepherd to his people, willing to lay down his life for them if need be. How compatible is an excessive attachment to health and safety with this essential aspect of the priesthood? Have we lost sight of it?” he asks rhetorically.
Writing as one who was most likely infected, I am abhorred at the likes of Quinn and other right wing journalists who argue in this manner. As I was most likely infected with Covid-19 in the course of my pastoral duties, I am aware of how contagious and how infective this virus is. While I might well accept the possibility of martyrdom for myself, I have no desire to inflict martyrdom on others.
The Association of Catholic Priests has reacted strongly against this assault on the integrity of the Christian middle-ground: “In the present context, gathering people together – especially elderly people who are most at risk – is grossly irresponsible and will lead to great pain, suffering and loss of life for many individuals and families.”
I have to ask what image of God is informing Quinn’s critical piece. The God of Jesus is not ‘stingy’ with his loving mercy. Grace is not limited to sacramental practice. Jesus promised that through the gift of the Spirit he would abide in us, in our hearts. We are not abandoned because we can’t get to Mass. In these strange ‘pandemic’ days we need communion with Christ and one another more than ever. But this can be fostered through family prayer and reflection on Scripture etc.
I fully appreciate how much people miss the celebration of the Eucharist, and its importance in their lives. For me as a priest it is a deep experience of loss not being able to gather with the faith community, to ‘break bread’ together and to support each other sacramentally in this awful contactless time. We have a deep hunger for the Bread of Life. The sacrifice asked of us is not easy. We need to understand why we are being asked to make this sacrifice.
This is where I have great difficulty with Quinn. He blithely ignores the rationale behind the delayed reopening of churches. Experts have informed us that because churches are a closed environment with poor ventilation there is a high risk of infection for congregations. Droplets and aerosols are generated and released when people talk and especially when they sing. Most droplets will not travel more than one metre (hence the two-metre social distancing rule). But in church buildings with poor ventilation, aerosols may survive in the atmosphere for at least three hours and remain infectious. People are at risk of breathing in the virus and becoming infected.
Dr Anthony Fauci (admired and respected by all as he battles on two fronts against Trump and the Coronavirus) warns that “there have been situations in multiple countries where the source of the cluster was a church service.” I cite a few examples of this.
Churches have been allowed to reopen in Germany since the second week of May. The resumption of communal religious services has been accompanied by very strict rules with emphasis on social distancing of two metres and a ban on singing and choirs to minimize the spread of the virus and strict control of movement. But with all the precautions in place, at one church service in southern Germany, more than 100 attendees became infected with Covid-19.
The Catholic bishops in Minnesota defied the State Governor’s public health order and insisted that churches break state rules and open for public Masses in May. However, three priests serving two parishes in Wright County, MN tested positive for the virus after celebrating weekend Masses. I understand that a number of parishioners have also become infected.
In Belair, a sprawling metropolitan area in Houston, Texas, the Holy Ghost Parish opened its doors in early May after the governor lifted restrictions. Five priests serving in the area have tested positive for Covid-19, one of whom has since died. The parish has reclosed its doors and contact tracing of all Mass attendees is being carried out.
The pastor of a church in Arkansas (non-Catholic) did not realise that he was Covid-19 positive and he has infected over 38% of his congregation.
Quinn also ignores warnings from experts such as Ultan Power, Professor of Molecular Virology in Queen’s University Belfast. He warns that we risk having repeated outbreaks which may lead to extensive epidemic spread if restrictions are eased too quickly. The consequences may be as or more devastating than the current epidemic.
Each phase of the reopening is calibrated to enable experts to carefully monitor the consequences of lifting the specific restrictions before proceeding to the next period. In that way, if there is an outbreak they will be able to detect the cause and take mitigating actions rapidly. The interval between each phase is calibrated to reflect the incubation period (up to 14 days) of the virus and time to detect new infection spread.
In view of the well-established major risks of becoming infected with the Coronavirus associated with large congregations in churches, it would be very negligent to re-open them for normal services until such time as the number of infected individuals in the community is very low or non-existent. This is especially the case for modern day Catholic services whose demographics include a large proportion of highly vulnerable elderly people, both cleric and lay, who are at massive risk of severe disease and even death.
We have been assured by our bishops that health and safety is a priority. Archbishop Martin emphasised that “the Irish Church is working intensely to ensure that the reopening of Churches for public worship will take place in a manner and at a time that is safe.” The Irish Bishops Conference will shortly publish a detailed document regarding the steps that each parish must take before the reopening of churches for public worship. Bishop Cullinan has established a task force to assist parishes of the diocese in the drawing up of a plan for reopening. It will involve much more than social distancing.