In mid-March, back when concerns about the coronavirus in the United States were starting to get real, an engineer named Tomas Pueyo published an article on Medium in which he outlined possible future scenarios in a world afflicted with COVID-19.
The best way forward, he advocated, was something he called “The Hammer and the Dance” — a method of implementing strong measures (the hammer part) to slow the spread when coronavirus cases begin to rise, and gradually easing restrictions (the dance) as they fall, while taking proper precautions to prevent another spike. Then repeat as needed.
In March and April, the nation experienced its first hammer. Churches were included, and public Masses were canceled coast-to-coast. As the spread slowed, the nation began its first dance as states — and churches — began to reopen.
Now, in July, we are seeing the start of the second hammer, as governors in California, Oregon and West Virginia are once again imposing tough restrictions — and in California, this includes most houses of worship.
“We’re seeing an increase in the spread of the virus, so that’s why it’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon until there is a vaccine or an effective therapy,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said July 13.
In response, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced updated guidelines late that night, ordering all indoor Masses and other liturgical services to cease, effective immediately, “in accordance with state directives.” Outdoor Masses and other liturgical services are both allowed and encouraged, the statement said, adding: “The Archdiocese is committed to limiting the spread of COVID-19 among its community of faith and helping faithful protect each other in these challenging times.”
As we continue to battle this disease in fits and starts, with inadequate testing and insufficient contact tracing, more dioceses will inevitably be forced to slow or even reverse plans for reopening. We Catholics must brace ourselves for a second wave without access to public liturgy — and the possibility that, for most of the country at least, our coming Advent could look a lot like our last Lent.
Thankfully, we will face this round more prepared than the last. We know the keys to being able to worship safely: social distancing, limited singing, mask-wearing, responsible reception of Communion, outdoor sacraments and prayer services, where possible. We know that this requires good communication from diocesan and parish leaders, as well as self-sacrifice on the part of all to reach a common goal for the common good. We also can find solace in the fact that if we, most unfortunately, find ourselves once again worshipping from home, many parishes are now equipped to broadcast Mass or offer the sacrament of confession with relative ease and safety. And we are better catechized and prepared to partake in a meaningful spiritual communion, if necessary.
None of these precautions are ideal, of course. But we find comfort in remembering that in respecting state and diocesan guidelines, parishes and Catholics in general are operating from a mindset of charity and love of neighbor, which is our Christian duty.
The desire of some to politicize the pandemic is both highly unfortunate and highly dangerous. As members of the Body of Christ, we should be able to pierce through the partisanship and recognize the dangers that can exist even when gathering to worship, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Because of this, continued departures from normal parish worship should typically be seen as an act of charity rather than an infringement on religious liberty. (One notable exception was in the Diocese of Madison in early June, where Bishop Donald Hying was forced to threaten to sue local municipalities — on the principle of infringement on religious liberty — when they treated churches differently from other institutions when it came to reopening policies.)
Now is the time for parishes to think ahead and plan for a repeated resurgence of the virus — something that can happen in rural areas as well as urban ones. Because we now know that gatherings outdoors are much safer than those indoors, dioceses should encourage parishes, where and when possible, to implement “al fresco” sacraments. In doing so, maybe others will take notice — letting us make a lemonade of evangelization out of the lemons of pandemic.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young