Monica Doumit: It’s too easy to criticise bishops

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Bishops faced a difficult decision on church closures and we cannot jump to conclusions.

Don’t judge them too quickly on shutting churches

Last week, I was sent a petition and asked to sign it.

The petition, which I imagine many of you have seen, is addressed to the Catholic Bishops of Australia, imploring them to “find safe and creative ways in order to publicly re-open our churches and resume publicly the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for [their] flock.”
It also goes on to specifically reject the “non-essential” classification given to religious worship by the government.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the petition, and I am certain that the author had very good intentions in putting it online. It is written with respect and charity, and articulates beautifully the desire of so many of the faithful to return to Holy Mass; their hunger for the Eucharist.

Indeed, canon law reminds us that “the Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires” (Canon 212§2).

The petition reflects the sentiment I have been seeing in many quarters over the last few weeks. The comments and criticisms have gone something like this: the Bishops were too quick to accept directives about closing churches; some of the Bishops even closed churches before the government asked; they didn’t fight hard enough to stop Mass and Confession being classified as ‘non-essential’; they haven’t lobbied for the churches to be re-opened; the longer they persist with this, the more likely it is that people won’t return to Mass.

I understand the frustration and the impatience. It is heartbreaking to see our church doors closed. It is annoying that they closed before the gyms or the cinemas or the indoor play centres.

Fr Greg Morgan FMVD, Parish Priest of St Charles Borromeo Church in Ryde, closes the church doors following Mass on 23 March. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

And in a secular age when the Church and the world needs the witness of those who will die for their faith, it is troubling that we have been denied the opportunity to risk our lives to receive the Eucharist.

But I think there are a few things that we need to keep in mind. The first is this: we had no idea if we would be able to contain COVID-19 in Australia. We didn’t know our death rate would be around 1.3 per cent and not the world average of about 7 per cent, or as high as France, which is seeing nearly 1 in 5 people infected with the virus die.

But quick decisions needed to be made. Bishops didn’t agree to close the churches because they didn’t care about us; they did it because they do. An infected but asymptomatic priest could potentially infect hundreds of people at a single Mass.

“Bishops didn’t agree to close the churches because they didn’t care about us; they did it because they do.”

I know this wasn’t a decision taken lightly. Bishops and priests know their entire vocation is to bring Christ to His people, and it is tearing many of them up having to turn people away. Like families who have chosen to stay home and not gather for Easter or birthdays or other things, they did so out of love, not indifference.

They also did it because it was the law, and the law was being enforced: the Bishops didn’t close the churches, the government did. Yes, they could have insisted that the churches remain open and challenged the police to a game of ‘chicken’ over the $220,000 fine that leaving just a single church open for one week would have incurred, but did anyone like their chances?

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP is seen live on national television as he celebrates Easter Sunday Mass in St Mary’s cathedral. The Mass was livestreamed and broadcast live across Australian by commercial television station Channel 7. PHOTO: Peter Rosengren

There is at least one state I know of whose justice system would have been delighted to bankrupt the Catholic Church. What then?

The next point is this: just because you don’t hear about the Bishops lobbying Prime Ministers and Premiers and Health Ministers and other Members of Parliament doesn’t mean it isn’t happening behind closed doors.

You would have read that Archbishop Fisher has written to the Premier to push for churches to be re-opened. I guarantee that this wasn’t the first time he has lobbied on our behalf during this crisis, and I also guarantee he is not the only Bishop to do so.

Sometimes, diplomacy works better when you are discreet about who you are speaking to and what they said. While some former political leaders take delight in writing memoirs detailing their conversations, the best results are often achieved when people can speak confidentially.

“Sometimes, diplomacy works better when you are discreet about who you are speaking to and what they said.”

And finally, leaving aside everything we don’t know and can’t see, there is plenty that we do know and can see: our clergy are doing everything they can to still minister to us.

Whether it is priests in their 70s learning how to live-stream Masses, or younger, more tech-savvy ones mastering the art of podcasting, or keeping church lights on all night, or driving to people’s homes to hear confessions and give spiritual direction, or dropping off bottles of holy water blessed at the Easter Vigil to parishioners, or making dozens of phone calls a day to check in on their flock or anything else, they have responded to these most challenging times with a pastoral creativity and sensitivity that reflects their fatherly love for us.

So, sign the petition or don’t. Complain on social media or don’t. Either way, I’m confident that your Bishops know how much you want to be at Mass, I know how much your fervour encourages them, and I know they are petitioning on your behalf already.

Related:

Keeping the Faith in a Covid19 world
Churches cast light despite locked doors
This Catholic Life Podcast Special Edition: Coronavirus and Church