As I was driving into work today to see some patients in clinic I was listening to the local radio station and they were talking about churches and how COVID-19 had forced them to cease performing mass.
The host and some callers made the case that churches should reopen. They sited some Minnesota churches that were planning on bucking the lock down trend and hold services.
In New York state where I live, Church reopenings are part of phase 4, the last phase of reopening. So conceivably they could remain closed for many more weeks or even months.
Many view the church closings as a government infringement on the practice of religion. Perhaps they are right.
The issue is that large gatherings still have the potential to reignite outbreaks of disease. And It’s not as if the government is uniquely singling out religious groups in general or one religious group in particular. The social distancing recommendations are directed at any gathering above a certain threshold number.
One thing that people should consider is that the vast majority of churches in the US file as tax exempt organizations. In other words: in order for them to enjoy the privilege of foregoing potentially large taxes on say real estate, they. agree to abide by certain regulations.
Let’s put it this way, any church that wants to rebel and flout the law, may find their privileged tax status in jeopardy. I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t be a place of civil disobedience when conscience dictates. And I am not saying that gathering in large groups is the right thing to do at this stage of the game: it’s not.
I am saying that most churches have made a trade with their local and state governments: tax free status in exchange for following certain rules. If there are things that you think your church should or should not be doing/ speaking up about, you may want to look into the kind of trade off they have made.
All that aside, plagues have been part of history for millennia. It’s just that they come up so infrequently, few of us have any experience with them.
What did they do when they were hit with plagues in Europe centuries ago presumably when regular church attendance was a more central part of most people’s lives?
Last year I visited Sicily and learned that Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Sicily’s capital, Palermo. She won that honor after some of the citizens of Palermo recovered her bones from their place of rest and paraded them through the town thus helping to end the plague of 1624.
A recent NY Times article nicely expounds a bit on this story. They were highlighting a painting of Sanat Rosalia that lives at the Metroploitan Meuseum of Art.
In the article they do mention that even then the towns employed “social distancing” measures even as it applies to church going.
“Palermitans could pray to Rosalia’s remains in the city’s cathedral, but only while observing strict social distancing: You could visit on just one day a week, determined by your address.
One edict proclaimed that, while the city should pray for “the intercession of glorious Saint Rosalia,” nevertheless “the human instruments and industry should not be set aside.” That included strict limits on movement, and regular recording of the ill and the dead. The sick had to isolate themselves on pain of excommunication, and worse; the archbishop warned that “they will be cursed with Lucifer, and Judas and all the Devils in hell.”
In confusing times like this it may help to let history to be our guide. If the Palermitani of the plague ridden 1620’s altered their church going for a period of time until the pestilence could. pass, then perhaps we should look into their methods further to see if they can be of some help.