Believing in heaven does not mean you should help people get there in a hurry.
On March 18, Archbishop Bernard Hebda published an open letter "to the faithful" of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which encompasses an estimated 750,000 parishioners across 180-some churches.
Relaying informatiom from state health experts, Hebda told Catholics the coming weeks would be "critical for the containment of the COVID-19/coronavirus." By order of the government, Minnesota's bars, restaurants, event venues, schools, and gyms were shutting their doors and going remote. Places of worship were to do the same.
"While I am sure that the advice is startling for those of any creed," Hebda said, "it particularly hits hard for Catholics, given our beliefs about the Mass and the Eucharist."
That latter term, for the unfamiliar, is the tradition of believers receiving communion from the church, a weekly recreation of Christ's Last Supper. It's about as fundamental as Catholic rituals get.
Hebda told parishioners these in-person affirmations of faith should be foregone, for at least the next two weeks, in the name of health and safety.
"I have made the difficult decision to suspend all regularly scheduled public celebrations of Mass in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul Minneapolis, effective immediately," said Hebda, who added missing church service "should not weigh on your conscience" -- uttering a concept that so rarely comes up in Catholic discourse.
Seek connection to God online, on the radio, or on television, advised Hebda, who said a "limited exception" would be granted for funeral and wedding services, and only under certain conditions to maintain safety. Same goes for confession, which would now be conducted based on "appropriate precautions... in accordance with the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control."
Hebda's announcement mentioned "some possibilities for limited public celebrations." One such example was seen the following Sunday, as four Catholic priests drove around northeast Minneapolis, stopping at the houses of parishioners who worshiped from a safe distance.
Alas, priests and parishioners of St. Augustine Catholic Church in South St. Paul were not blessed with the same level of creativity. On Sunday, March 22, photos posted to Facebook showed at least a few dozen people waiting -- in a crowded line, no less -- to receive Holy Communion, one right after the after, in the church parking lot.
Last Sunday, communion services continued at St. Augustine. During this gathering, people maintained safe distance by staying in their cars... while priests walked around distributing communion wafers... directly, reaching right through the windows of their cars... and into their mouths.
This time, the ritual was captured on video.
Phone calls to St. Augustine went unanswered, and Father John Echert did not respond to emails asking about these these parking lot masses.
Asked about St. Augustine's apparent disregard for Hebda's instructions, the Archidocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul provided City Pages with a statement from Father Mike Tix, Vicar for Clergy and Parish Services [emphasis ours, need to say a few Hail Marys and ask for forgiveness a certain South St. Paul church's]:
“Archbishop Hebda had directed that there were to be no regularly scheduled public celebrations of Mass the past two weekends because of safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. No priest in the Archdiocese had the authorization of the Archdiocese to make an exception to that directive.
To clear up any confusion or ambiguity, and to extend the suspension of public Mass, the Archbishop, after conferring with his Council of Priests, issued new guidelines this afternoon. The new guidelines foresee the possibility of an outdoor celebration of Mass without the public distribution of Holy Communion, provided that those in attendance remain in their cars, that the CDC social distancing guidelines are respected, and that the parish has the greenlight from the local public authorities as well as the Archdiocese.”
On his deathbed, sick with fever and with the city of ancient Hippo besieged by Vandals, Saint Augustine received a man who brought with him a sick relative. He asked the dying priest to offer the gift of healing. Augustine observed that if he had such a power, he would have already used it on himself. The man persisted; he swore the miracle had been foretold to him in a dream. Hearing this, Augustine laid his hands upon the ailing relative. As the story goes, the sick man recovered, though Augustine himself soon died.
So far as we know, no local churches are offering such services at this time.