The following is an open letter to the author's bishop—Msgr. Michel Aupetit, archbishop of Paris—and to all the bishops of France. It was also published today in French at Le Salon Beige.
In this time of pandemic, millions of French people are deprived of access to Mass and Communion as a result of a series of decisions taken by the French Bishops' Conference and each bishop in his diocese. Are these decisions, which are presented as inevitable, good for the Church and for Catholics and all the inhabitants of the country? Supposing that they are indeed necessary, where are they leading us? Are we heading toward a dead end?
Let us put aside the argument of obedience to public authorities.
First of all, we have seen our public authorities hesitate on many of the methods of containment and you would have had the opportunity to influence them in the direction of the good of the Church and of French society. How is it that when we fill in our “attestation of exceptional movement” [during lockdown, France requires citizens who leave their homes to carry an official document explaining why they are out], we do not find a box to tick for going to our parish? People are allowed to go shopping for food. Since man does not live “by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God,” it goes without saying, in a society where death can arise unexpectedly and prematurely, that the care of souls should be at the center. So allow us to ask you, why did you not fight to protect the faithful’s access to Mass?
One might object that the faithful cannot be admitted to Mass because of the danger of gathering people in a church, for reasons of contagion. But the way forward is obvious: Ensure enough Masses so that there are, at each one, only a small number of faithful! In the event, the bishops of Ile-de-France had, in a first instruction on Friday, March 13, announced that weekday Masses would continue, given that they are less visited than Sunday Masses. Before the confinement, I went to a Mass in Germany that was very well organized to respond to the challenge of the moment without depriving the faithful of what is essential. Every other chair had been removed and people respected social distancing rules. Communion was distributed only by priests who had previously disinfected their hands. So it is possible. There is no reason why you couldn’t have persisted in your initial plan, which was to ensure that more Masses were celebrated.
Of course the priests in our parishes continue to say Mass “for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.” The faithful can unite themselves to the prayer of the universal Church and ask for the grace of spiritual Communion. Modern means are also used to broadcast Masses by video. This is the heart of the matter! Let us be grateful for the effort that the Church is making so that, thanks to new technologies, we do not lose this link to the Mass. But this remains radically insufficient and therefore can only be temporary. The incarnation of the Son is not a virtual incarnation. It is a real incarnation: Three times a day, at the ringing of the Angelus, we turn to the tabernacle of our churches and we repeat that “The Word became flesh!” It would be extremely dangerous, even in the short term, to accustom the faithful to Mass online. It would amount to wishing for a kind of “disincarnation” of Christ. In a society where people willingly sink into parallel virtual realities, it is essential to remember that Christianity affirms realism—integral realism—which is for everyone. We must realize, moreover, that the means of disseminating Mass online will not reach the poorest, those who are on the wrong side of the “digital divide.”
Mass is not a religious service like any other. It has a specificity. It is not simply a prayer gathered from the faithful. It is not simply a sharing of the Word of God. It is not simply a commemoration of the Last Supper. The incredible gift that you have received from the chain of apostolic succession and that you transmit to all those you ordain is to make Christ really come at every Mass, under the species of bread and wine. Christ is truly there. This is the faith of our fathers, and which we have the duty to transmit to our children: Not only is Jesus risen, but I have the possibility of going to receive him in person, of taking Communion with his body. He is truly there, at each consecration of bread and wine by all those who are “priests according to the order of Melchisedech.”
Yes, in these weeks of Lent we will pray, saying the Rosary with the pope and the whole Church. Yes, we will watch Masses at a distance to carry with you the Eucharistic offering. But this is not enough for us. We are poor beings of flesh and we can be saved only because Christ is the Word become flesh. We want to see Jesus “live.” We want, like the suffering woman of the Gospel, to touch the fringe of his garment. We want to commune with his body.
Let us pause for a few moments on the very beautiful episode of the meeting between Bartimaeus and Jesus at the exit of Jericho, as reported to us, for example, in the Gospel of Mark. This blind man, “learning that it is Jesus the Nazarene” who passes by, starts “crying out and saying, ‘Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me!’” The evangelist says, “And many threatened him to keep quiet, but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him!” And they called the blind man and said to him, “Take Courage, stand up, he is calling you!” Then the evangelist continues, “Throwing off his cloak, he leaps out and comes to Jesus. And addressing him, Jesus said, ‘What do you want me to do for you?' The blind man said to him, ‘Teacher, let me see again!’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Go, your faith has saved you.’ And immediately he received his sight, and followed him on his way.” This story is not reproducible by video; it takes place at the beginning of each Mass for each one of us, when we go to a church—where no crowd, no malicious individual can deny us access to Jesus, and where, like Bartimaeus, we reject the mantle of sin and cry out to Christ, “Lord have mercy!” And when you, dear priests, restore in us a “pure heart” that allows us to see God, by giving us the initial absolution, we can then follow Jesus on the very concrete path of the Mass that leads to the Last Supper and to Golgotha, at the moment of consecration. The Gospel would have much less effect on our lives were it not incarnated in the liturgy at every Mass.
A country in the midst of a pandemic needs the supreme physician more than ever. Christ never asked us to renounce reason and prudence. On the contrary, he freed all human faculties “from the double bondage of ignorance and sin” (St. Thomas Aquinas). And it is natural that precautions should be taken. It is normal that the elderly should be advised not to take ill-considered risks. But if faith helps reason to flourish, it does not lose its rights. Since we have the certainty, received from the Apostles, carefully handed down from generation to generation and renewed each day at Mass, that Christ is truly among us, what do we have to fear when we go to meet him? Is he not the great healer?
We cannot imagine not celebrating Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. You cannot give up and accept a screen between Christ and us. If you do not hear the expectation and the urgent need of millions of faithful, then the stones of our churches will start to cry out!
This situation also poses clearly the problem of the very existence of the Church in our country and the witness it must give. Have we not given in too easily? Have we not renounced giving the only witness that is worthwhile today, “Yes, it is really him”? Masses without the faithful will soon lead to a country without Masses. The communion of the faithful is the first evangelization. Certainly you continue to say Mass, and we know Christ is coming. But can you keep it to yourself? Would it not be a paradox if, half a century after Vatican II, clerics withdraw into themselves? And still further a paradox if all of us, priests and faithful alike, would no longer bring Christ to the world? It would be terrible in these times of pandemic if we did not go to comfort our sick brothers and sisters—believers or nonbelievers—not simply with good words or spiritual recipes but with Christ himself, present in the midst of the world and alive within us.
On the evening of Tuesday, March 17, the French prime minister gave remarks that are chilling not only for Christians but for humanists. He explained that one should not go to funerals, even the funeral of a loved one, in these times of confinement. Caring for the dead is the foundation of humanity. Whether one goes to the church, the cemetery, or the crematorium, the question of sanitary prudence is the same and can be navigated. But the prime minister has told us that we live in a society where we cannot go and bury our dead. He is defying not only the wisdom of the Bible but the wisdom of the Greeks. The Greeks agreed with Antigone, who wanted to bury her brother against the will of the tyrant Creon. The French prime minister is speaking on behalf of a society which, because its rulers did not anticipate this crisis, is no longer treating coronavirus patients who have passed a certain age. But who will take care of these deaths? Do we, as Christians, want to support these choices through our passivity?
And how will we know how to challenge these restrictions if we do not have an example? How will we set the scale of values right if the priests are not as much on deck as the physicians? If they do not give the medicine of eternal life to all those who come to ask for it? If they are not going to detect and cure diseases of the soul as one detects a physical virus? How can we, the faithful and the religious, be your auxiliaries, your caregivers, if you do not become the spiritual physicians of our brothers and sisters? Have we ever seen doctors keep their medicine to themselves? Especially when they can make the medicine in abundance, like Jesus did when he multiplied the loaves? Shouldn't we change the method? I would like to make a few suggestions:
- As our public authorities consider extending the lockdown, it is absolutely necessary to take advantage of the moment to ask them to alter the rules to include the right for people to go to their place of worship, with the guarantee that the representatives of their religion will respect the rules of “social distancing.” Catholics can, on this occasion, show that they are exemplary. This will enable you to prepare the public authorities for allowing Holy Week Masses and ceremonies. It is unthinkable that the faithful cannot at least have access to the Palm Sunday and Easter Masses. You will find enough of the faithful willing to help you to reflect on the right way to proceed.
- Keep the churches open, no matter what happens, in a second phase of containment. And it is very important that long expositions of the Blessed Sacrament take place. It would also be appropriate for the faithful, on these occasions, to come and receive the reserved sacrament in spaced lines if they were unable to attend Mass, or if it was not possible to celebrate enough Masses under safe conditions to receive them.
- We need to start thinking now about the way out of the crisis and about the world afterward. Unfortunately, the Church has not been present enough to witness to our nonbelieving brothers during this crisis. For two thousand years, Christians have always been present, in the front line, to support their brothers and sisters in times of pandemic. Our world is sick with an absence of God. In the end, the right response to the crisis we are going through, which bears directly on the fundamental human realities of suffering and death, can only be spiritual. Where the Spirit is not present, fear reigns, which causes people to act in a disordered way in the temporal order.
As French Catholics, we will have no reason to be particularly proud of ourselves. But the impasse in which we find ourselves, and which I am sure we will find a way out of, is in truth the culmination of a long series of failures by Catholics to influence the choices of society. Apart from the defense of freedom of education, for half a century we have lost battles for freedom of conscience and the dignity of the person: abortion, embryo research, “marriage for all,” “LDCs for all women” [which entails a right to IVF for lesbian couples]. Our collective ineffectiveness must push us to think seriously. The pure and simple exclusion of the faithful from Masses in the time of coronavirus is the result of a growing inability of the Church in France to shape the debates of the nation.
With Christ, it's never too late. Let's pull ourselves together. Christ sleeps in our tabernacles, but if we wake him up, he will rebuke the wind and tell the sea to calm down. Then he will ask us a legitimate question: “Why are you so lacking in courage? Do you have no faith?” And in his power we will be reminded of the question of the Apostles among themselves: “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Excellency, allow me, in conclusion, to make a request of you—since you, together with your brother bishops in the Episcopal Conference, decided to ring the bells of France’s churches for ten minutes at the hour of the evening Angelus on the day of the Annunciation. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in times as troubled as ours, the practice of saying the Angelus three times a day became widespread. The famous painting by Jean-François Millet, The Angelus, makes us understand in a striking way how much the Angelus has made France. In these times of confinement, we should commit ourselves, collectively, starting from the feast of the Annunciation 2020, to stop (like the characters in Millet's painting) at the time of rising, at noon, and when the day falls, to recite the prayer which, better than any other, speaks of the reality and the strength of the Incarnation. Could you recommend this practice to the faithful of your diocese?
Our fathers knew it, as all the saints have told us. The Holy Father testifies to it every Sunday at noon. The effectiveness of this prayer comes from the fact that it touches Mary's heart. We could, in a few weeks, by the collective practice of a thrice-daily Angelus, begin to reweave the distended bond between all the Catholics of France. We could also give our nonbelieving brothers, in this time of disorganized days, the example of a Christian organization of time, punctuated by the recitation at 7 a.m., noon, and 7 p.m. God will provide for the rest, if we have faith.
Yours faithfully, Your Excellency, as an expression of my filial sentiments.
Edouard Husson is Professor of Modern History at the University of Cergy (Paris) and at the Institute of Social Sciences, Economics and Politics (ISSEP, Lyon). He is also Executive Director of the Fondation Robert de Sorbon dedicated to French culture and language.