April 10, 2020

Archbishop: Closure of churches is necessary to keep all safe

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Archbishop Charles C. ThompsonI bid you grace, peace and hope in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen! As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to take a great toll on our lives, especially the livelihood of so many, let us not allow our spirits to succumb to the virus or other any enemy visible or invisible.

In addition to the great efforts of health care workers and first responders, there are many unsung heroes continuing to provide care, assistance and encouragement to others. Though there has been a great shift in the way in which we provide spiritual and pastoral care, necessity has spawned much creativity in reaching out to individuals and families particularly through the Internet. Many thanks to those who manage our archdiocesan and parish websites, and to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for providing so many wonderful resources.

There has been quite a bit of speculation on social media about the closing of churches during the pandemic in many dioceses throughout the country and world. Some have been supportive while others have been critical of these decisions. To be sure, this is quite unprecedented in our lifetime. It is most painful for all—clergy and laity. As human beings, we are social by nature. As Christians, we are drawn to gather as a community of believers. As Catholics, gathering for Mass is our greatest form of prayer and worship. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our identity and mission.

Each bishop is responsible for his decision in this regard. With that in mind, if it will help to bring about some understanding and appreciation for such action, I take this opportunity to explain the reasons for churches remaining closed in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

First and foremost, please be assured that the closing of churches and the celebration of Mass without community is a painful reality for everyone. I know of no one among the clergy or the laity who does not lament this sad and difficult hardship. Celebrating Mass in an empty cathedral or church is a surreal experience, especially during the apex of the entire liturgical year—namely, Holy Week, the Triduum and Easter. So much in our Catholic culture has been disrupted during these special weeks such as fish frys, Stations of the Cross and penance services. We can’t get these things back from this year. Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church is missionary by nature. As Church, rooted in memory of the past and assurance of divine promises made, we must always be reading the “signs of the times” in the present and looking toward the future of eternal life. We have not lost what matters most; namely, the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. With the Father and the Holy Spirit, He remains forever with the Church, His Body, carrying forth the mission for which He was sent.

The decision to close churches here in central and southern Indiana had nothing to do with fear or pressure from government. Despite being dispensed from the obligation of Mass and being encouraged to remain at home just prior to the suspension of public Masses, many elderly and vulnerable persons attended Mass in very risky ways. Crowds of people continued to gather closely together. This was the same for communal celebrations of penance. A number of people told me that their elderly parents or grandparents would not stay home unless everything was suspended and churches were closed. Maintaining our primary focus on salvation of souls does not mean turning a blind eye to reason and prevention of serious harm.

As the data has shown, people who are asymptomatic, that is, not showing signs of having been infected, have passed on the virus to others before being diagnosed with COVID-19.

While it was first thought to be transmitted through touch, evidence now reveals that it is being transmitted by air (e.g. coughing, sneezing and even breathing). There is further evidence that the virus can remain on various surfaces—wood, metal, paper, cardboard, plastic, etc.—for hours or days at a time. That means everything being touched or breathed on by someone unsuspectingly carrying the virus may be left for the next person coming along. This may be the case in a pew, a confessional, a chair, a doorknob, a missalette or even a palm. A priest who wants to hear confessions or take Communion from car to car in a parking lot cannot guarantee that he would not be an agent for transmitting the virus from one person to another or, even more devastating, from one family to another. In the case of an invisible and vicious enemy like coronavirus, as I have said before, there can be a fine line between being heroic and being an agent of transmitting disease.

Our priests continue to respond to sacramental and pastoral needs in danger of death, including entering hospitals and other places to hear confessions and administer the anointing of the sick, Viaticum and last rites. We are most grateful to those hospital chaplains that are on the front lines to provide spiritual comfort and assurance to both patients and their families.

Finally, trying to do all that we can to support our health care workers and first responders, maintaining closed churches at this time is one means of lessoning the curve of cases in our communities. Marion County, as would be expected, has by far the most diagnosed cases and deaths from the virus. While outlying counties within the archdiocese do not have so many cases, health care facilities in those areas are ill-equipped for any type of spike in such cases. We owe it to them and one another, especially in light of the Church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, to do all we can in support of this effort to overcome this pandemic.

Our Catholic faith, while we have some beautiful cathedrals and churches throughout the archdiocese and world, is not confined to buildings. It is in buildings that we gather to pray, worship, learn Church teachings and gather in fellowship. But the living of our Catholic faith takes place in all facets of society such as homes, places of work, schools, neighborhoods, athletic events, political arenas, cultural venues and on the streets. While there has been a disruption in our ability to gather as a community of believers, we continue to be Catholic, Church, the Body of Christ, missionary disciples and stewards of God’s grace by carrying on the mission in whatever form circumstances make possible. We need only think of the creative ways the first disciples were able to worship, learn and proclaim the faith in carrying out their call to holiness and mission in Jesus Christ.

There are great challenges before us during this pandemic and, no doubt, “staying in place” and “social distancing” is taking its toll on us. But there is also unique opportunity for us to delve deeper into prayer, spiritual reading, enriching our sense of devotion (via the rosary, the Divine Chaplet of Mercy, the Stations of the Cross, litanies, etc.), meditating on the Word of God (lectio divina), examination of conscience, learning more about our Catholic faith and discerning how to become more involved in the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Whether inside or outside any given Church structure, above all, may we remain Christ-centered in all we say and do. 

Most Reverend Charles C. Thompson
Archbishop of Indianapolis

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