The American bishops’ decision to withhold the Sacraments from the church faithful, and withhold the holy priests whose very purpose is to render them to the church faithful, forsakes the examples of the saints, forsakes the vows of the church, and runs exactly contrary to Christ’s chastisement of the pharisees and His challenge to the apostles to “put out into the deep.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidance early in the pandemic that bishops cancel public Mass, and the bishops have followed, with some closing their churches to all sacraments and even private prayer. As April drew to a close, the USCCB issued new guidance that bishops should begin to reopen the church.
Most remain quiet, but some of the country’s 177 dioceses and archdioceses have indicated they will follow or trail the secular authorities in their phased reopenings. The reality, however, is that the USCCB has no actual canonical authority over individual bishops. Nor should the bishops bow to civil authorities to separate the faithful from Christ’s gifts, as most but not all have.
The bishops have allowed themselves to be led astray and cowed, even reprimanding priests on behalf of the civil authorities for quietly serving their parishes. The faithful take notice. And this must end.
Each of the sacraments was uniquely instituted by Christ for the purpose of extending and granting His grace to the faithful, regardless of situation or circumstance. Indeed, if there is anything that can and should be extended to the faithful in troubled times it is God’s grace, and the means of doing so are those sacraments.
A wonderful thing about the sacraments is they are not “goods” or possessions to be alternately withheld or bestowed, freed or loosed by bishops. They are Christ’s means of gifting His grace, the faithful need them, and it is the bishop’s responsibility and solemn obligation to provide for them. Christ’s instruction to “Do this in remembrance of me” is not qualified by any “except for when’s.”
Consider the very sacrament of Holy Matrimony. At its critical moment the spouses-to-be “promise to be faithful to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you all the days of my life.”
St. Paul, in his first-century epistles, writes that the church is the bride of Christ. He reveals this miraculous truth to us for us to understand and for us to wonder, and it would do well for the bishops to understand and to wonder themselves. They might begin with the promises of the spouses and understand their role as leaders who make, and are obligated to keep, the promises of the bride to the bridegroom, Christ Himself.
Are the bishops being faithful in bad times and in sickness to honor Christ all the days of their lives? There fear and risk management in the bishops’ collective retreat to the chanceries; love and honor, not so much.
In thinking of the church’s duty in times and places of rampant pestilence, consider St. Teresa of Calcutta. Were she alive today, the bishops would be rebuked by her excellent example without her needing to utter a word.
Or consider St. Damien of Molokai, St. Roch, and St. Aloysius Gonzaga. In the face of disease these priests got to holy work fulfilling the promises of the church. They are venerated as saints not for their knowledge of canon law, deference to secular leaders or lethargy, but for their faith and action.
The bishops, our shepherds, are culpable for more than mere inaction, however, for the closing of churches and suppression of the sacraments are their willful acts. Heaven takes notice.
Christ called Himself the Good Shepherd, saying, “The Good Shepherd gives his life for his sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees. […] And the hireling flees because he is a hireling and he has no care for the sheep.”
It is not rash to observe that the bishops have fled the pasture and their individual — yes, individual — flocks. They have demonstrated their status as hirelings whose own the sheep are not. None of this is lost on the sheep. The odd thing is that in doing so, the bishops have herded each other together and thus the shepherds are proven to be sheep themselves. Sheep in shepherds’ clothing.
Bishops: Roust your individual selves, take up your crooks and return to the work of the Good Shepherd, for Christ’s sake – and for the sake of His church.
The author is a faculty member at a university associated with the Roman Catholic Church.