Vatican City—March 23, 2020—CNA—Cardinal Raymond Burke issued a letter encouraging priests and bishops to work constructively with civil authorities to meet the spiritual needs of Catholics during the coronavirus pandemic.
Acknowledging the “sadness” and “fear” which the pandemic has brought with it, the cardinal reflected Saturday that “Oftentimes, when we find ourselves in great suffering and even facing death, we ask: “Where is God?” But the real question is: “Where are we?”
“To fight the spread of the virus, we are all on a kind of forced spiritual retreat,” Burke said, “confined to quarters and unable to show usual signs of affection to family and to friends. For those in quarantine, the isolation is clearly even more severe, not being able to have contact with anyone, not even at a distance.”
The American cardinal, who is a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s supreme court, released the letter on March 21. The letter expressed solidarity with struggling Catholics, and cautioned against forgetting the importance of spiritual support during the pandemic.
“In these days, I have heard from so many devout Catholics who are deeply saddened and discouraged not to be able to pray and worship in their churches and chapels. They understand the need to observe social distance and to follow the other precautions, and they will follow these prudent practices, which they can easily enough do in their places of worship. But, often enough, they have to accept the profound suffering of having their churches and chapels closed, and of not having access to Confession and the Most Holy Eucharist.”
Burke urged that civil authorities consider spiritual needs before issuing orders closing churches to prayer.
Civil urgency, charity, and the unique role of churches
“In our totally secularized culture, there is a tendency to view prayer, devotions and worship like any other activity,” the cardinal wrote.
“Just as we are able to purchase food and medicine, while taking care not to spread the coronavirus in the process, so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels, receive the Sacraments, and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion, so that we know God’s closeness to us and remain close to Him, fittingly calling upon His help,” he added.
The cardinal urged pastors to heed the best life-saving advice available.
“Certainly, we are right to learn about and employ all of the natural means to defend ourselves against the contagion. It is a fundamental act of charity to use every prudent means to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus,” Burke wrote Saturday.
“One of the principal natural means to defend ourselves against the coronavirus is to avoid any close contact with others. It is important, in fact, to keep always a distance – some say a yard (meter) and some say six-feet – away from each other, and, of course, to avoid group gatherings, that is gatherings in which a number of people are in close proximity of each other.”
Nevertheless, Burke said, churches are not the same as other gathering places.
“In the past, in fact, governments have understood, above all, the importance of the faith, prayer and worship of the people to overcome a pestilence,” he said, but the advance of secularism meant this understanding no longer exists.
“We cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or to an athletic conference,” the cardinal added, while underscoring the importance of “those objective encounters with God, who is in our midst to restore health and peace.”
Burke called upon fellow bishops and priests to explain to secular leaders “the necessity of Catholics to pray and worship in their churches,” as well as to “go in procession through the streets and ways, asking God’s blessing upon His people who suffer so intensely.”
It is important that civil authorities understand the importance that places of worship have in times of national crisis, the cardinal said. And the cardinal suggested that churches could take similar steps to other essential public institutions which remain open, including grocery stores and hospitals.
“Many of our churches and chapels are very large,” said Burke. “They permit a group of the faithful to gather for prayer and worship without violating the requirements of ‘social distance.’”
Home as a little church, an extension of our parish
Burke also suggested that a veil in confessionals could be treated with a disinfectant in order to protect both the penitent and the priest.
“If a church or chapel does not have a sufficiently large staff to be able to disinfect regularly the pews and other surfaces, I have no doubt that the faithful, in gratitude for the gifts of the Holy Eucharist, Confession, and of public devotion, will gladly assist,” added Burke.
While urging the need for public prayer and worship in times of crisis, Burke also admonished Catholics in areas of quarantine to unite in prayer.
“If, for whatever reason, we are unable to have access to our churches and chapels, we must remember that our homes are an extension of our parish, a little Church into which we bring Christ from our encounter with Him in the bigger Church,” Burke said.
“If the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, together with the image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is not already enthroned in our home, now would be the time to do so,” he said.
The cardinal wrote that Catholics should rely on both faith and reason in order to get through the present situation, saying that “we must use reason, inspired by faith, to find the correct manner in which to deal with a deadly pandemic.”
“This manner must give priority to prayer, devotion, and worship,” he said.
The cardinal said he decided to “offer these few reflections” because he is “deeply conscious of how much you are suffering because of the pandemic.”
“Above all, I hope that they will inspire you to turn to God in prayer and worship, each according to his or her possibilities, and thus experience His healing and peace.”