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[OPINION] Why is it about time to reopen the doors of our churches in ‘Covid-19 free’ areas

[OPINION] Why is it about time to reopen the doors of our churches in ‘Covid-19 free’ areas

Fr. Reginald Malicdem, Rector of the Manila Cathedral, celebrates the mass streamed online as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease spread in Metro Manila, April 2, 2020. COURTESY OF ROMAIN GARY LAZARO

By Fr. Elias L. Ayuban Jr., CMF

May 4, 2020

Manila, Philippines

Yesterday, a fellow canon lawyer asked my opinion as regards the giving of communion to healthy parishioners who follow online masses while observing necessary precautions in a diocese where there is no reported case of COVID-19.

This is not the first query I received concerning the matter and, mostly likely, not the last. So, allow me to share with you my reflections from the canonical and pastoral perspectives with regard to the measures adopted by the Philippine Church in general, not only in the giving of communion (or lack of it) outside the Eucharistic celebration, but also in the continued suspension of public masses and other liturgical celebrations.

At the outset, I would like to clarify that this is just a humble and personal position and does not, in any way, intend to undermine, much less contradict, the existing ecclesiastical and civil norms. Pope Francis encourages us to discern and walk together as a Church and so I write these reflections in light of this call to synodality. Besides, we do not only have the right, but also the obligation to reverently manifest to our Pastors and other Christ’s faithful our “views on matters which concern the good of the Church” (c. 112, 3).

It is my hope that these and other insights will help pave the way for further soul searching and discernment on how to best respond to the spiritual needs of the faithful in this time of pandemic, without compromising our physical health and the well-being of others.

In provinces where there is no reported case of COVID-19 positive, I am of the opinion that the celebration of public masses and other liturgies should be gradually resumed while keeping all the necessary precautions, such as: social distancing; the wearing of face masks; communion by hand, no holy water at the entrance, but instead, alcohol or sanitizer; no touching of images; regular disinfection of the benches and liturgical vessels; non-participation of children, elderly and sick people (the latter can receive communion in their homes); and, other measures as deemed opportune.

If going to the market or grocery store is allowed, where social distancing is more difficult to implement, I see no prevailing reason why an organized Sunday gathering in a cathedral or spacious parish church, where physical separation can easily be executed, not permitted. In this regard, I found the additional schedule of masses in the diocese of Tagbilaran at the beginning of the lockdown a timely measure to guarantee that there would be less churchgoers in a given mass.

Moreover, after over a month of ECQ (and now GCQ) and no case of coronavirus infection has been reported, it is reasonable to say that the threat can come from the outside, not from the inside. Ergo, restrictions and control should be focused more on those who enter the province who are potential carriers, and not those who have been in the place throughout the entire duration of the lockdown.

The spiritual needs of our brethren may vary. Others can continue living as good Christians without the benefit of receiving holy communion, but others get their principal spiritual nourishment from it. It is the latter that I am more worried about. And as ministers, we are mindful of the right of the faithful “to be assisted from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments” (c. 213).

It is about time to “reopen the doors of our churches” for people to pray. While it is true that we can pray anywhere, there is no place like the church and no celebration like the Mass. Pope Francis, in his homily at Santa Martha, expresses support for access to sacraments and churches with the presence of the people. “A familiarity without community, without bread, without the Church, without the people, without the sacraments is dangerous,” the Holy Father stressed (Zenit.org, April 17, 2020).

Yes, these restrictions are in accord with the government policies, but the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and individual bishops can negotiate and engage because the right to worship is at stake here. The Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), for example, has already formally protested the Italian government’s decision to keep the ban on public Masses throughout the country (Zenit.org., April 27, 2020).

This is also the time for individual bishops to give dispensations as needed within the bounds their competence (c. 85). While communion apart from the Mass is intended for exceptional cases, in these times of crisis, while public Masses are suspended, the local Ordinary can allow the administration of holy communion to parishioners who are healthy while observing the liturgical rites (c. 918). This is, by the way, my response to the above question of my colleague.

In closing, I believe that this is a privileged moment to evangelize and to be evangelized, and to demonstrate the merciful face of the institutional Church. I am afraid that we might lose the rare opportunity if we will not revise our positions, bearing in mind that “the salvation of souls is the supreme law” (c. 1752).

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Fr. Elias L. Ayuban, Jr., CMF, JCD, is currently the Provincial Superior of the Claretian Missionaries of the Philippine Province and Board Member of the Association of Major Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP). He served as canon lawyer at the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and professor of canon law at the Claretianum in Rome.

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