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Free the Mass! A Call to Spiritual Arms for the Right to Worship

Free the Mass! A Call to Spiritual Arms for the Right to Worship

“Free the Mass” — that’s the rallying cry that was broadcast in mid-September by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, as he marshaled his flock in opposition to the unjust restrictions against celebration of Catholicism’s central sacrament that his city’s mayor has imposed.

Archbishop Cordileone’s action was triggered by the continued failure of Mayor London Breed to grant fair treatment to the worship of local Catholics and other religious believers during the COVID-19 pandemic in the revised restrictions she communicated in September. While the mayor’s new provisions provided some relief from the extraordinarily harsh conditions in place in San Francisco for the previous several months — which permitted only outdoor Masses with a maximum of 12 people participating — the new limits will still have a cap of 50 people outdoors and 25 people indoors for religious services and a limit of one person at a time for private prayer within churches.

Meanwhile, much less restrictive policies apply to venues such as public parks, retail stores, indoor gyms, hair and nail salons and even massage parlors, as Archbishop Cordileone noted in a Sept. 13 memo to his priests outlining the “Free the Mass” initiative.

“San Francisco is the most restrictive county in the entire country when it comes to public worship, but the state of California is not much better, with its limit of 100 people for an indoor worship service,” he wrote. “This is an overreach of the government into the life of the Church and an infringement of our right to worship as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

San Francisco’s shepherd also called attention to his previous efforts to work with city officials behind the scenes to implement sound public-health policies at Catholic churches and to communicatethe positive outcomeof the implementation of such measures nationwide by the U.S. bishops.

“As three infectious disease specialists who reviewed the data of the more than 1 million public Masses that have taken place over the last 14 weeks put it, ‘The Good News: For Catholic churches following these guidelines, no outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to church attendance,’” Archbishop Cordileone pointed out. “Opening windows, sanitizing properly, closing off every other pew, socially distancing and the other protocols we developed work.”

But all of this effort has been largely disregarded by Mayor Breed, the archbishop said, and believers, in consequence, continue to be “singled out for uniquely punitive treatment.”

The archbishop requested a three-pronged public response to San Francisco’s egregiously unjust city policies with respect to religious assembly. He asked his pastors to invite their parishioners to sign a petition at FreeTheMass.com calling on Mayor Breed to lift the unfair restrictions; to encourage participation in a Sept. 20 Eucharistic procession to the U.N. Plaza adjacent to San Francisco’s City Hall, marching while wearing masks and social distancing and bearing 100 banners declaring, “We Are Essential: Free the Mass!” and afterward processing to San Francisco’s cathedral to celebrate multiple outdoor Masses there; and subsequently to display the “Free the Mass” banners on their churches in order to manifest an ongoing public witness to the issue’s importance.

“At our demonstration, we will not be asking for special treatment,” Archbishop Cordileone explained in a commentary published Sept. 17 byThe Washington Post. “We just don’t want religious worshippers singled out for unfavorable treatment relative to people participating in activities with comparable risk profiles. All we are seeking is access to worship in our own churches, following reasonable safety protocols — the same freedoms now extended to customers of nail salons, massage services and gyms. It’s only fair, it’s only compassionate, and, unlike with these other activities, it’s what the First Amendment demands.”

Archbishop Cordileone celebrates Mass outdoors Aug. 22.(Photo: Dennis Callahan)

A small group of faithful attend a Mass outside of the San Francisco cathedral celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone on Aug. 22.(Photo: Dennis Callahan)

The severity of the problems Catholics have experienced in getting back to worship may be more acute in San Francisco than anywhere else in the nation, but unjustified restrictions unfortunately have been the norm in many other locations.

So Archbishop Cordileone’s call to spiritual arms, requesting Catholics to push back publicly in a respectful yet firm manner, can serve as a common assembly point for U.S. Catholics across the nation. Wherever authorities are wrongfully suppressing their right to celebrate Mass and engage in other necessary public expressions of their Catholic faith, they should be ready to push back in the same way, in line with America’s constitutional and legislative guarantees of religious freedom.

Religious liberty is America’s first freedom, and as such it can’t be jettisoned without legitimate cause during this trying time of pandemic. It merits every bit as much acknowledgement in public-health policies as the right of public assembly, which San Francisco, like other U.S. cities, has scrupulously respected in the case of the ongoing public protests against racism — even though those protests, unlike Catholic religious services, have routinely failed to observe local mandates regarding social distancing and the wearing of masks.

There’s no dispute that the restrictions on worship are exacting a serious toll on Catholics. Asurveyof U.S. bishops regarding the effect of pandemic policies, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, reported that celebration of the sacraments and of sacramental preparation was “very much affected” in a substantial majority of dioceses. The survey of bishops also reported a significant negative effect on the morale of their clergy and lay staff, as well as the morale of the bishops themselves.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, has outlined the spiritual harm stemming from the coronavirus-related “locking down” of religious worship in a recent article,publishedin the National Catholic Bioethics Center’sEthics & Medicsjournal, and he elaborates on these concerns in this issue’s In Person interview.

While there has been an unceasing stream of dire warnings from political leaders and public-health officials about the physical dangers associated with the virus, “we have heard very few warnings about moral hazards that can kill the soul,” he commented in his article. “Some, for example, have said that access to liquor, cannabis, casinos, and abortion is essential, but going to church and access to the sacraments are not.”

This downplaying of worship fails to acknowledge that, grave though the physical risks can be, they are no justification for depriving Catholics and other Americans of the spiritual sustenance they need and deserve — particularly given how diligent Catholic churches have been in conforming with public-health requirements, even when those have been unjust.

“Physical health is important, but the highest good is eternal life,” Bishop Paprocki explained at the conclusion of his article. “The free exercise of religion and access to the means of salvation established by Christ through the Church must have priority in the moral and legal order.”

Those are words for all of America’s faithful to ponder, pray over — and act upon, as needed.

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