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Analysis: Policy and pastoral leadership in a time of crisis

By JD Flynn and Ed Condon for CNA

(Image: Allard One/Shutterstock)

Washington D.C., Apr 3, 2020 / 10:49 am (CNA).- Across the U.S., and around the world, bishops are struggling to adjust to the pastoral emergency which has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

In entire countries, the public celebration of Mass has been suspended, as local governments ban gatherings of even a handful of people.

And at the same time, the pandemic and ensuing economic collapse have led many to consider seriously their mortality and the state of their soul, with even the supposedly irreligious turning to prayer in increasing numbers.

Among many Catholics, there is a hunger for the sacraments, and for the faith. Catholics are looking to their bishops for leadership. Bishops, in response, are forging attempts to address a complicated situation that few, if any, ever thought they might face.

The results have been mixed.

Some American dioceses are, for now, allowing pastors to try to meet the needs of their flocks while conforming with government rules. Drive-through confessionals have sprung up in many parishes, as have drive-in Eucharistic adoration and benedictions. And some bishops have taken to preaching online with regularity, adoring the Eucharist on cathedral steps, or making plans for the next stage of the pandemic.

But other bishops have opted to err on the side of extreme caution, locking every church building and attempting to bar the administration of all sacraments except in danger of death.

In some dioceses, priests have been told they cannot hear confessions, at least not unless death is imminent, that they can not baptize, except in an emergency, or that, in at least one diocese, they can not anoint anyone who is dying.

As bishops look for the right ways to lead, at least some of their priests have been struggling to adjust to the ever-tightening web of restrictions on their sacramental ministry.

Some priests have begun to wonder, in quiet consultations and conversations, whether they’re really prohibited from offering the sacraments of mercy and healing now, when they seem most needed.

And some priests have begun considering a question they never expected to find themselves asking: ‘Should I obey my bishop?’

The patchwork of policies and guidelines circulated by chancery officials seems to have varying degrees of clarity and authority for priests, and can risk appearing pastorally distant to Catholic laity.

The orders raise a number of as-yet-unanswered canonical and pastoral questions. For example, it is not immediately apparent that a memorandum circulated by the vicar general of the diocese meets the canonical criteria to effectively suspend the faculty of every priest in the diocese to hear confessions. Nor is it clear that a bishop has the authority to prohibit the anointing of the sick.

And lay people, at least some lay people, have begun to ask why they shouldn’t baptize their own newborn babies, or even invoke a little-used canon that would permit them to marry outside of canonical form when circumstances warrant it.

This week, a group of lay people called for bishops to find whatever ways are possible to continue the administration of the sacraments. How bishops will respond remains to be seen.

But the situation could become contentious.

Priests with whom CNA has spoken in recent days have said they want to make every effort possible to be obedient to their bishops. But some have said they’re not sure what they’ll do if a person comes to them in mortal sin seeking forgiveness, or a parishioner calls about a loved one dying at home, especially from causes that are not coronavirus, and seeking anointing.

A sense that disobedience might become morally necessary could become demoralizing to priests, and lead to ecclesial dissension at a time when faithful unity seems critical.

And the situation would become even worse if priests looking for attention or validation decide to make a spectacle of disobedience to norms they finds problematic. Such a thing would be unfortunate, but in the contemporary social media and ecclesial climate, completely unsurprising.

Priests in many places are left feeling conflicted: trying to balance a commitment to their flock with the desire to conform to the will of their bishop.

At the same time, the impression that some bishops are out of touch with the reality facing the faithful is not helped by pastoral letters that seem more concerned with fundraising than spiritual leadership.

Catholics are, more than ever, looking for true shepherds in a time of crisis. Responding with an approach that is too policy-heavy may leave bishops at risk of appearing to legislate from a bunker, as priests and laity struggle with spiritual and physical isolation.

Pope Francis has urged against “drastic measures,” and said he is praying that bishops will “provide measures which do not leave the holy, faithful people of God alone, and so that the people of God will feel accompanied by their pastors, comforted by the Word of God, by the sacraments, and by prayer.”

The pope also intervened in the Diocese of Rome, reopening the churches for private prayer after they were initially closed completely, and commanded international attention when he offered a special Urbi et Orbi benediction to an empty St. Peter’s square.

St. Charles Borromeo is an historical example being cited by many as a model for bishops in times of pandemic. The Archbishop of Milan closed the churches of his diocese against the plague in the sixteenth century, though he delivered the sacraments to quarantined houses himself, preached holy hours, and processed through the city with the Eucharist.

Around the world, some bishops have sought to lead by personal example, even as they scrupulously observe public health rules.

In Cologne this week, Cardinal Rainer Woelki reopened the archdiocesan seminary as a temporary center for the city’s homeless, offering shower facilities and hot food. Overseen by health workers from Malteser International, the cardinal personally welcomed guests into the center.

Meanwhile, in China, where public health restrictions have been at least as dramatic as parts of the U.S., Bishop Stephen Lee Bun-sang of Macau sat outside his house last week, wearing a surgical mask and hearing confessions from behind a screen.

Examples like the pope, Cardinal Woelki, and Bishop Lee, seem to have helped local Catholics, priests and laypeople, to feel both loved by their bishop and led in faith and service to each other, while at the same time setting examples about conforming to local regulations on social distancing.

To ensure that a public health emergency does not become a pastoral crisis, American bishops face two pressing challenges. The first is to find some coherent path forward for sacramental ministry that is neither negligent of legitimate health concerns nor heedless of real pastoral needs, and the genuine priestly desire for the administration of the sacramental life.

The second is to reflect on how to become more visible in their ministry as shepherds, in solidarity with their people, and eager for their spiritual care.

While doing everything necessary to prevent contagion, it may become increasingly urgent that bishops be seen to stand with Catholics and their pastors, not between them.


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10 Comments

  1. It is both comical and pathetic to witness the timorous clerical hand wringing over whether to disregard a bishop’s invalid diktat to deny Baptism, Matrimony, Holy Communion and Extreme Unction in defiance of the laity’s spiritual and canonical rights to the sacraments. I am old enough to remember how in the 1960’s onward priests anathematizing Humanae Vitae, forcing Communion in the hand, and destroying altar rails and sanctuaries were lauded and even lionized as prophets transfigured with the “spirit of Vatican II”. There no qualms in those days of priests publicly defying bishops and bishops publicly defying the pope, in the pulpit and in the media. Common to then and now is that the rights of “sheeple of God” are ruthlessly trampled under foot by arrogantly dictatorial clerical and episcopal “servant-leaders” with open contempt for authentic traditional Catholicism.

    • Paul,

      Of course we have to keep in mind that within the Church the orthodox and heterodox are not mere mirror images of one another.

      For the orthodox, obedience is a real virtue sanctioned by God, and so when an authority is untrustworthy, inept, or malevolent the orthodox finds himself in a terrible dilemma which requires much prayer and reflection. If my parent or supervisor or commanding officer or pastor gives me an order which I find dubious, I can’t just say “Nuts to him” and ignore it. I’m not saying we always obey the voice of authority without question; what we can’t do is disregard it lightly.

      For the heterodox, on the other hand, authority is something to obey only when it stands on “the right side of history” — in short, authority as such carries no weight, and obedience is no virtue. Indeed, among the smart set rebelliousness is often valorized and celebrated for its own sake.

      For whatever it is worth I very much appreciated this article. Seems to me Mr Flynn & Condon say just the right thing, in just the right tone.

      What I find frustrating about all this is that I simply cannot believe that a society saturated with all this gee-whiz supertech is incapable of conducting Mass in accord with public health guidelines. Were the will there, the way would be found.

  2. My family is being reached out to by three Protestant churches several times a week by various members–including lay and paid staff. Our own parish, not so much.
    .
    I am guessing the Catholic focus on Holy Eucharist is a large part the reason. Now that it is taken away, our shepherds are at a loss as what to do.

    • Well, as St Augustine said, “ Where the Church is, there is the holy Eucharist.” The Protestants have either done away with the Eucharist or minimized it into
      a symbol and, as Flannery O’Conner said to her dinner host, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” I’d go to an SSPX chapel before I’d accept any Protestant advances.

    • Kathryn,
      I’m glad to hear that other churches are reaching out. Catholics need to do more of the same.
      Some good news though, a friend in the Annapolis, MD area told me that she received a call from a volunteer at her parish asking if she would like someone to pray with her. And they prayed together on the phone. She was really touched by that. It’s too bad it takes a crisis to find fellowship but hopefully we’ll learn something from all this.
      Be safe!
      🙂

      • Our parish is keeping us informed, the priest is livestreaming (or you can watch a recording) daily Mass, he is hearing Confessions, they’ve sent out information about available resources online and on TV…

  3. There will always be good men of God, just like there will always be scoundrels in the clerical state. Jesus chose Judas, just for that purpose, so the people of God would know that wolfs in sheep’s clothing are to be expected. St. Paul spoke of them in the Acts of the Apostles. If Jesus could condemn the religious leaders of His time after 1000/500 years of Temple sacrifice for obeying the letter of the law against the spirit of God and pushing human precepts over God’s laws how could any Catholic believe the clergy would remain pure after 2000 years! Remember there was a thief in the twelve Apostles, so why are we surprised that there are thieves in the Vatican, we just don’t need to send them our money!

  4. The following post appeared today on “pastoral leadership in the time of crisis”: https://lesfemmes-thetruth.blogspot.com/2020/04/churches-locked-but-bihop-still-want.html#more

    I think it is worth reproducing below in part:

    Churches locked but bi$hop$ still want The Money. O.Ver.My.Cold.Dead.Body.

    No Mass, no Sacraments, no Easter
    but bishops want the flow of
    $$$$$ to continue unabated.

    Opening lines to The Money Song from Cabaret

    A Mark, a Yen, a Buck or a Pound
    Is all that makes the world go around,
    That klinking, clanking sound,
    Can make the world (of the bishops) go ’round.

    After decades of offering stones to the faithful, the bishops suddenly have links to orthodox websites and activities for the laity to engage in “to keep our Faith”, “to be close to Jesus” while we’re now jobless and imprisoned in our homes. To remind you of the stones we are given, here’s a partial list posted in the comment section of one of last year’s blog posts. Thank you to the unknown person who sent this.

    Following is a small sample of things from “true representatives” of the Catholic Church.
    1. Cardinals, bishops and priests sodomizing young men.
    2. Nuns advocating homosexuality and abortion, even acting as “clinic escorts” at abortion clinics.
    3. “Catholic” representative doing the same (and everybody receiving Holy Communion from the hands of sodomitical cardinals, bishops, and priests).
    4. Jesuits criss-crossing the world, preaching the acceptance of homosexuality.
    5. Thousands of priests and theologians openly preaching heresy. For decades.
    6. Priests joining masonic lodges while remaining priests.
    7. Priests leaving the priesthood to marry each other.
    8. Bishops openly clamoring for the ordination of women to the priesthood. Ditto for priests, nuns, and lay organizations.
    9. Theft from dioceses (millions of dollars) by clerics from one end of the U.S. to the other.
    10. Liberation theology, so-called, being promulgated unimpeded for decades (and now being preached by Bergoglio).
    11. Millions of Catholics leaving the Catholic Church in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., as well as other places, due to false teaching.
    12. Priests and nuns advocating for “transgenderism”.
    13. Priests joining Communist parties.
    14. A pope who publicly praises abortionists (among a myriad of other outrageous things).
    And on and on and on, ad nauseum.

    Here are a few more – The bishops persecute good and holy priests, bishops allow parishes to participate in sodomite pride parades, bishops allow priests to teach that sodomy is not a sin, bishops silence their priests on the subject of abortion because they would no longer receive The Money from the government for their wicked programs, the bishops lie, the bishops steal, the bishops knowingly transfer sodomite priests from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. Of course there are a few good and holy bishops, but they themselves are persecuted by their fellow bishops, the majority of whom are ruled by the Lavender Mafia of sodomites in God’s Holy Church. And the laity? Half the laity have no knowledge of what Our Lord taught. They support abortion. They support sodomy. Same-sex marriage. Transgenderism. They support what their sodomite bishops and priests support. They support wickedness.

    So…? Coronavirus? Locked Churches? Masses all over the world suspended? Is this the beginning of the Chastisement? And now the bishops close and lock up Catholic churches across the nation. In Florida, despite Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis saying otherwise, Archbishop Thomas Wenski declared that Florida’s Catholic churches will remain closed until after Easter.

    However, Archbishop Wenski and bishops across the nation want faithful Catholics to continue to send in The Money because they have to pay bills. Considering if they hadn’t ordained wicked sodomites to the priesthood who then sodomized the young, whose parents then sued the church for BILLIONS, those same bishops would have The Money to pay their bills.

    Perverting the Word of the Lord is more important to them and now that the time of the chastisement for their sins has come, with locked doors and no people in the pews without The Money, the bishops are beginning to panic. They are letting go half their enormous staff because they can no longer afford to pay for extraneous jobs, they say that they still have to pay the electric bills of their enormous diocesan buildings and palaces… and some bishops might not be able to pay their rent boys any longer.

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