Arkansas Catholic asked Bishop Anthony B. Taylor some common questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our Church in Arkansas.
• As state and federal leaders stress the importance of “social distancing” and small group gatherings, how will the diocese handle RCIA candidates/catechumens entering the Church on Easter, especially parishes with more than 10 people becoming Catholic?
First of all, I prefer the term “physical distancing,” not “social distancing” because we don’t want to become distant socially, we just need to find different ways to stay connected. Regarding RCIA, more recently it has become apparent that this year it will no longer be possible for the Easter vigil to be celebrated in parishes, so on March 19 I advised pastors that other arrangements will need to be made for those who otherwise would be entering the Church this Easter.
• You were one of the first bishops in the country to cancel public Masses. How hard was that decision for you?
It was a very hard decision, but as I prayed about it the Lord impressed upon me that as shepherd, I have to concern myself not only with the spiritual welfare of the flock, but also their physical welfare. I watched what was going on in Italy and realized that the time to take action here had already arrived.
• How will the diocese observe the Chrism Mass this year?
The chrism Mass has been postponed to August and priests have permission to use last year’s oils until that time. Just last week we received permission from Rome to postpone the chrism Mass if that became necessary.
• What can Catholics do to observe the various traditions of Holy Week at home? Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter?
My celebration of these liturgies will be live streamed on the Diocese of Little Rock social media (see sidebar), and many of our priests will be live streaming their liturgies as well. Catholics can participate in these on social media and then make a spiritual communion at the time when the priest receives Communion on camera.
People can also pray the Scripture readings for these Masses at home, come by their church to receive palms on Palm Sunday and pray the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday — making sure that not more than 10 people are gathered at any one time. People participating in the Good Friday service through the internet can venerate one of their own crosses in their home while the priest is venerating a cross in the Good Friday service.
Many of our churches will be open during the day for eucharistic adoration (through Thursday) and veneration of the cross (Friday), with enough space for people to maintain physical distancing.
• There are some who are not taking “social distancing” seriously. Why is it important that Catholics rely on both the advice of medical experts and prayer?
Physical distancing is important in order to protect others as well as oneself, hence it is a matter of the common good. Obviously, this is usually not possible or even desirable in the home unless someone is known to have been exposed to the disease. What we are talking about is maintaining physical distancing between ourselves and those with whom we do not live and about whose health we do not know.
Modern medicine is a gift from God, so we should take seriously the advice of public health experts. We should also pray — not only for protection for ourselves and our loved ones, but also in a special way for the medical personnel who make great sacrifices — and take sometimes heroic risks — to care for their patients. Also, of course, we should pray for a cure!
• What have you been doing to protect yourself from COVID-19?
I have greatly restricted my movement; I very seldom leave the House of Formation, where I live, except to go to my office at the St. John Center for a brief time each work day, where I visit with practically no one other than my secretary, and maintain six feet of physical distance from her. I conduct all my work via telephone, computer and video conference.
• I understand that Mass continues to be celebrated with the seminarians at the House of Formation and in convents and monasteries. Why can’t it also be celebrated for small groups in the parish? In many parishes attendance at weekday Mass is smaller than in these religious houses.
The House of Formation and the Carmelite monasteries in Little Rock and at Marylake, the Benedictine monasteries at Subiaco, Fort Smith and Jonesboro, and the Mercy sisters convent in Barling, etc., are closed communities of people who live together 24/7 with far less contact with the outside world, especially now. In response to the COVID-19 crisis they have each taken steps to further restrict the movement of their residents and for the time being no longer allow outsiders to attend their Masses — not even other seminarians who are home from their closed seminaries and living with their parents, nor Carmelite or Benedictine oblates, due to the greater chance that they might bring COVID-19 with them from the outside world.
The reason weekday Masses in parishes are suspended, but not the Masses in the religious communities, is that the parishes are not self-contained communities — the participants come and go from everywhere and so Mass in that environment poses a much higher risk to the participants.
• With President Trump’s statements hoping to re-open parts of the economy by Easter, will we be able to resume the public celebration of the Mass by Easter? When will our churches reopen?
Our churches are not closed! They remain open for people to come and pray privately, maintaining physical distancing. People come to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, pray the Stations of the Cross, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, meditate on Scripture and pray the rosary.
Moreover, the Mass is being celebrated privately by priests in many locations and live streamed to people who join in the worship in that way, thus uniting themselves to the Lord in spiritual communion through social media from their homes.
But as for the public celebration of the Mass, that will have to wait until we can gather safely without danger of contagion. I am concerned not only about the spiritual welfare of our people but also their physical welfare, and the public celebration of the Mass will not resume until that can be secured — and the public health experts have made it clear that this is unlikely to occur by Easter.
• This has already hit the economy hard and many families in Arkansas, from losing pay to losing jobs. What can parishes do to assist Catholic families hit the hardest?
Most of our parishes have money set aside for charitable outreach and a number of our parishes offer meals to the homeless and the poor, but beyond that, this is a big dilemma because our parishes will soon be in a precarious situation financially themselves. Many of our parishes were just getting by as it is. The diocese has informed parishes that they should meet their other obligations first, and meet their financial obligations to the diocese last, once everything else has been taken care of.
• Parishes rely heavily on donations during weekend Masses to pay their bills. What can parishioners do to support their parish when they aren’t attending Masses in their churches? Will churches have to lay off their employees?
Parishioners can mail their contributions to their parishes or do so by automatic withdrawal from their bank account. I have told pastors that, if at all possible, they should continue to pay their employees, even though they are not able to come in to work. As for layoffs, I certainly hope not, at least not right away, though I imagine that this might have to occur in isolated cases.
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