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The Battle to Free the Mass

on Friday, 01 January 2021. Posted in Eucharist & mass

Here are exceprts from of a text written by Most Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone (photo on the right), Archbishop of San Francisco, California, dated Nov. 22, 2020, published on the website First Things:

This year (2020), Americans have endured not only the intertwined economic, health, and political crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a deep spiritual shock. For the first time since the Spanish Flu of 1918, our local and state governments have restricted worship services. And while the Word can be livestreamed, the Eucharist cannot.

I am well aware that this spiritual crisis has intensified the concern that faithful Catholics have about their leaders. When I launched an ultimately successful campaign to “free the Mass” in San Francisco, Philip Lawler wrote, “Why ask city officials to ‘free’ the Mass? There is only one man who has the rightful authority to restrict and regulate the liturgy of the Catholic Church in San Francisco, and his name is Cordileone.”

The best way to answer Lawler’s question is to tell the story of how I started the movement to Free the Mass. Like most bishops, my first response to a novel virus whose fatality rates were then unknown was to cooperate with public authorities to “flatten the curve.” The stated rationale was to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Given what was happening in New York City and Italy, this appeared rational.

I did not accept the state’s authority to shut down worship services. I made these decisions. I am responsible for them. Priests continued to celebrate Mass, though the lay faithful were no longer permitted to attend. I encouraged pastors to livestream and reach out in other creative ways if they could (and many have). This was a twenty-first-century version of what St. Charles Borromeo did during the plague of 1576; when the churches of Milan were closed, he set up outdoor altars so people could see that the Mass was still taking place.

Confession, baptism, and other sacraments remained available. And I refused to close the churches to private prayer, which became a bone of contention with City Hall at different times during the lockdown.

We developed protocols to safely celebrate the Mass (social distancing, masks, ventilation, and sanitation) and sent them to city health officials for review. In a pandemic, civil authorities have the responsibility to create reasonable health guidelines informing people of faith how they can worship safely. But government cannot arbitrarily ban worship. Moreover, Catholics have shown we can celebrate the Mass safely. Our protocols work.

As the lockdown dragged on, I began to get unhappy messages from faithful friends asking why I didn’t just defy the health rules. “Storm the Cathedral and take it back!” one particularly passionate member of my flock told me. What was I, their archbishop, doing? (...)

The city promised to open up religious worship by mid-June. And then the disappointing actual order came down: only outdoor worship, and with a limit of 12 people. How could City Hall bless massive political protests, yet shut down public worship almost completely? My questions went unanswered. I began to realize that patient, silent, invisible pleas while my people were suffering were no longer enough. (...)

Next I decided to launch a public witness, pushing the edge of the city’s rules without breaking them. On the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, I invited the faithful to come to multiple outdoor Masses on the large Plaza of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, a practice we repeated for successive Sundays with hundreds attending.

Meanwhile, I kept pushing city officials to answer the question, “Why?” Why, as one of my parishioners put it, can she spend three hours in a Nordstrom’s shopping for shoes but can’t go to Mass? I received no answers.

On August 31, I went public, calling on Mayor London Breed and San Francisco health officials to lift the unfair restrictions on the Mass: “Ours and others’ faith is being treated as less important than a trip to the hardware store, or a nice dinner out on the patio. This denial of access to safe outdoor public worship is a serious deprivation of our rights as Americans under the First Amendment and our spiritual needs as people of faith.”

In early September, City Hall once again announced that it would issue new, more liberal guidelines for public gatherings. So under the banner “We are Essential! Free the Mass” I announced a new large event for September 20: Three processions emanating from four parishes would wind through the streets of San Francisco, meeting together at the plaza facing City Hall before heading up the hill to the Cathedral for 19 simultaneous outdoor Masses of 50 people each in various languages. We would socially distance. We would wear masks. But we would pray and take Communion together.

My intention was to stay technically within the confines of the existing health order. But then on September 14, instead of simply liberalizing worship rules, the city actually snuck in two new restrictions: a prohibition on multiple gatherings in the same general vicinity, and only one person at a time allowed in church for private prayer. The city issued these new restrictions on the same day that nail and hair salons and tattoo and massage parlors got the green light to re-open. It pushed us into civil disobedience.

The two new rules clearly targeted Catholics. The best religious liberty lawyers advised me that suing in the 9th Circuit would probably not be the best strategy. Even if we sued, it would be months or years before a Supreme Court decision might provide any relief.

Our fundamental rights are given to us by God, not by courts; the most important place to defend them is in the court of public opinion. So on September 20, on the Cathedral Plaza, I gave more than 1000 assembled Catholics a call to action: “to City Hall, you don’t matter. One person at a time in this great Cathedral to pray? What an insult. This is a mockery. They are mocking you, and even worse, they are mocking God.” (...)

Archbishop Cordileone leads a Eucharistic procession to ‘Free the Mass’ September 20 in San Francisco

We continued to press the case of unequal treatment to Catholics in the media: EWTN, Laura Ingraham, Fox News. But the key pivot point was likely my Washington Post op-ed published on September 16, under the headline “Americans’ right to worship is being denied by governments. I won’t be silent anymore.”

The Justice Department took notice. On September 25, DOJ sent a letter to Mayor Breed, warning her that the current unconstitutional rules should be revised “promptly.”... Public witness on the city streets. A big media push. Thousands of petition signers generating hundreds of calls. It worked. The city raised the limit on public worship indoors to 100 people—the maximum allowed by the state of California. True, the state rules still do not treat religious worship entirely fairly. But at least San Francisco is no longer adding additional restrictions to the Mass. The doors to our churches were open for worship again. Thus our October 3 prayer rally on the Vigil of St. Francis was transformed into a great thanksgiving from the heart of San Francisco Catholics. (...)

Our victory is still fragile, with COVID cases rising again. The battle to Free the Mass was and is important, but the great war to come is the war for souls. We know that the Church will face a great contraction in Mass attendance post-COVID. We must have innovative and creative ways to bring back those about to fall away from the faith.

In this war for souls, I offer this insight: The Mass in the Catholic Church stands or falls on the supernatural claims of our founder Jesus Christ: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Making the Real Presence of Christ at the Mass real in the hearts and minds of all Catholics is the way forward. v

+ Salvatore J. Cordileone

Archbishop of San Francisco

From the website of the archdiocese of San Francisco, we got this update, dated Nov. 28, 2020:

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone reacts to today’s announcements of a return to restrictions that included no congregations for worship inside churches in two of the three counties that comprise the Archdiocese, effective noon tomorrow:

“After weeks of demonstrating we can celebrate the Mass safely, the state of California has put San Francisco and San Mateo Counties into the purple tier, which bans indoor worship altogether. The order lumps religious worship with non-essential indoor activities such as gyms, movie theaters, and museums. At the same time, the health order allows for indoor retail at 25 percent capacity and permits massage parlors, hair and nail salons, and tattoo parlors to operate indoors.

“This is precisely the kind of blatant discrimination to which the Supreme Court gave injunctive relief in New York. The government is demoting worship to the same status as watching a movie: “non-essential.” But worship is both a natural and a Constitutional right. My people want to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; they need it, and have every right to be free to do so... the government still chooses to treat worship as less important than shopping for shoes.

“While the safety protocols of the Archdiocese have served us well and we know of no cases of transmission of the virus as a result of in-person worship inside of our churches, I am also deeply sympathetic to public health concerns about a surge in COVID hospitalizations. In order to discern what our faith and responsible citizenship call us to do at this time, then, I will confer with my brother bishops.. and consult with the lawyers on the legal options we have available.”

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