Back to Church

By David Bjornstrom

When the Coronavirus pandemic first hit, the Catholic Church was among some of the first organizations to “self quarantine.” Public worship was quickly shut down, including Masses and confessions. Unfortunately, as time has passed and safety procedures are being developed, little effort has been made to reopen the sacraments, even during Easter week, and even when that could be done quite “safely” with appropriate safeguards.
Grocery stores, hardware stores and take out restaurants have remained open during the pandemic, recognized as “essential services,” with appropriate procedures to keep people six feet apart and sometimes wearing masks. Those same types of safety measures, possibly even more, can work in a carefully planned religious service. For example, churchgoers can be limited to six feet apart with masks, possibly outdoors and/or in their cars, and confessions can be done outside in a similar way. Anointing of the sick can be done by priests wearing appropriate protective gear much like doctors and nurses in a hospital.

Practice of our Faith essential

The practice of our faith should be considered at least as essential as other “businesses” based on first amendment and religious liberty  considerations. Catholics know that the health of the soul is even more important than the health of the body. Even secular guidelines have considered “social services” and “mental health providers” to be essential. The Church was so quick to shut down its public sacraments, and to keep them shut down, that the world seems to have assumed they’re not really that important to us.


Some of the Protestant churches have been taking a lead on this, holding parking lot religious services. A few Catholic priests have heard confessions in a parking lot or other outdoor venues with the priest and penitent six feet apart. There has been a lot of public debate recently over this and some legal battles underway involving Protestant parking lot services, to sort out the First Amendment and religious liberty principles.

The US Department of Justice, headed by a strong Catholic, US Attorney General William Barr,  has weighed in to support a Mississippi church where congregants were fined by their local government after meeting in a parking lot. However, the majority of Catholics, both laity and clergy, have been willing to sit this one out, seemingly content to forgo our sacraments.

Prudence, Perspective, Faith

Catholics seem to be implying an acquiescence with the secular culture that our sacraments are not all that critical in this era of “social distancing.” We seem to be tacitly conceding to the world that the sacraments are not as essential as hardware stores, takeout restaurants. liquor stores and even abortion clinics. When the present crisis is over, will this be remembered as a time when the secular authorities successfully marginalized the Catholic Church without much of a fight from us? 


There are, of course, the usual considerations that the practice of our faith must be handled prudently considering possible health risks and the desirability of working within the system, but it is starting to look a lot like we’re just not that serious about our faith.


Again, nobody is suggesting that the Church shouldn’t follow the same safety measures utilized by other essential businesses like grocery stores and restaurants, but surely we can find a way to have the sacraments administered as safely as McDonalds serves hamburgers.


Lent is over. We’re in the Easter octave and fear of Covid 19 is starting to abate. Now is the time to reclaim the Church’s legitimate place in our society by making formal demands on civic and religious leaders to recognize the sacraments as essential services to be made available even while we observe all due precautions recommended by the public health experts.

David G. Bjornstrom is a Santa Rosa, CA-based attorney at law with 36 years specializing in business, estate and tax law. He may be reached at [email protected]

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