Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone
This year, Americans have endured not only the intertwined economic, health, and political crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a deep spiritual shock. For the first time since the Spanish Flu of 1918, our local and state governments have restricted worship services. And while the Word can be livestreamed, the Eucharist cannot.
I am well aware that this spiritual crisis has intensified the concern that faithful Catholics have about their leaders. When I launched an ultimately successful campaign to “free the Mass” in San Francisco, Philip Lawler wrote, “Why ask city officials to ‘free’ the Mass? There is only one man who has the rightful authority to restrict and regulate the liturgy of the Catholic Church in San Francisco, and his name is Cordileone.”
The best way to answer Lawler’s question is to tell the story of how I started the movement to Free the Mass. Like most bishops, my first response to a novel virus whose fatality rates were then unknown was to cooperate with public authorities to “flatten the curve.” The stated rationale was to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Given what was happening in New York City and Italy, this appeared rational.
I did not accept the state’s authority to shut down worship services. I made these decisions. I am responsible for them. Priests continued to celebrate Mass, though the lay faithful were no longer permitted to attend. I encouraged pastors to livestream and reach out in other creative ways if they could (and many have). This was a twenty-first-century version of what St. Charles Borromeo did during the plague of 1576; when the churches of Milan were closed, he set up outdoor altars so people could see that the Mass was still taking place.
Confession, baptism, and other sacraments remained available. And I refused to close the churches to private prayer, which became a bone of contention with City Hall at different times during the lockdown.
We developed protocols to safely celebrate the Mass (social distancing, masks, ventilation, and sanitation) and sent them to city health officials for review. In a pandemic, civil authorities have the responsibility to create reasonable health guidelines informing people of faith how they can worship safely. But government cannot arbitrarily ban worship. Moreover, Catholics have shown we can celebrate the Mass safely. Our protocols work.
As the lockdown dragged on, I began to get unhappy messages from faithful friends asking why I didn’t just defy the health rules. “Storm the Cathedral and take it back!” one particularly passionate member of my flock told me. What was I, their archbishop, doing?
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