This year, Americans have endured not only the intertwined economic, health, and political crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a deep spiritual shock. For the first time since the Spanish Flu of 1918, our local and state governments have restricted worship services. And while the Word can be livestreamed, the Eucharist cannot.
I am well aware that this spiritual crisis has intensified the concern that faithful Catholics have about their leaders. When I launched an ultimately successful campaign to “free the Mass” in San Francisco, Philip Lawler wrote, “Why ask city officials to ‘free’ the Mass? There is only one man who has the rightful authority to restrict and regulate the liturgy of the Catholic Church in San Francisco, and his name is Cordileone.”
The best way to answer Lawler’s question is to tell the story of how I started the movement to Free the Mass. Like most bishops, my first response to a novel virus whose fatality rates were then unknown was to cooperate with public authorities to “flatten the curve.” The stated rationale was to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Given what was happening in New York City and Italy, this appeared rational.
I did not accept the state’s authority to shut down worship services. I made these decisions. I am responsible for them. Priests continued to celebrate Mass, though the lay faithful were no longer permitted to attend. I encouraged pastors to livestream and reach out in other creative ways if they could (and many have). This was a twenty-first-century version of what St. Charles Borromeo did during the plague of 1576; when the churches of Milan were closed, he set up outdoor altars so people could see that the Mass was still taking place.
Confession, baptism, and other sacraments remained available. And I refused to close the churches to private prayer, which became a bone of contention with City Hall at different times during the lockdown.
We developed protocols to safely celebrate the Mass (social distancing, masks, ventilation, and sanitation) and sent them to city health officials for review. In a pandemic, civil authorities have the responsibility to create reasonable health guidelines informing people of faith how they can worship safely. But government cannot arbitrarily ban worship. Moreover, Catholics have shown we can celebrate the Mass safely. Our protocols work.
As the lockdown dragged on, I began to get unhappy messages from faithful friends asking why I didn’t just defy the health rules. “Storm the Cathedral and take it back!” one particularly passionate member of my flock told me. What was I, their archbishop, doing?
Mostly, I was pleading with public officials behind the scenes. San Francisco is a secular city. The city health orders were inflicting spiritual and psychological suffering on my people, but I couldn’t rely on city officials to intuitively understand this. I needed to explain the safety protocols and show officials the data proving that they work. The right to infect others is not a right I wanted to stand behind. I wanted not only to protect public health but also to be seen as doing so. Under these extraordinary circumstances I had to assume goodwill and make my case thoroughly and repeatedly.
The city promised to open up religious worship by mid-June. And then the disappointing actual order came down: only outdoor worship, and with a limit of 12 people. How could City Hall bless massive political protests, yet shut down public worship almost completely? My questions went unanswered. I began to realize that patient, silent, invisible pleas while my people were suffering were no longer enough.
I date the start of the campaign to Free the Mass to a seemingly unrelated incident: the June toppling of St. Junípero Serra’s statue in Golden Gate Park. Watching the video was very hard for me. I saw people chuckle with glee as they desecrated the image of a great and holy man. I felt it as a deep wound in my soul.
I saw that bishops needed to do more than protest violence and call for dialogue. We needed to defend our saint, canonized by Pope Francis himself. So I went to the site to conduct a minor exorcism. “An act of sacrilege occurred here,” I told the more than 100 San Francisco Catholics who gathered to join me. “That is an act of the Evil One.” It touched a nerve; almost 50,000 people have now viewed the video of the rite.
Meanwhile, San Francisco health officials visited parishes. They said they were responding to complaints that our churches were open for private prayer, or were violating the ban on indoor worship. Sometimes it was true, other times it was not or at least not completely accurate as reported. It was clear, though, that our parishes were being observed.
Next I decided to launch a public witness, pushing the edge of the city’s rules without breaking them. On the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, I invited the faithful to come to multiple outdoor Masses on the large Plaza of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, a practice we repeated for successive Sundays with hundreds attending.
Meanwhile, I kept pushing city officials to answer the question, “Why?” Why, as one of my parishioners put it, can she spend three hours in a Nordstrom’s shopping for shoes but can’t go to Mass? I received no answers.
On August 31, I went public, calling on Mayor London Breed and San Francisco health officials to lift the unfair restrictions on the Mass: “Ours and others’ faith is being treated as less important than a trip to the hardware store, or a nice dinner out on the patio. This denial of access to safe outdoor public worship is a serious deprivation of our rights as Americans under the First Amendment and our spiritual needs as people of faith.”
The Benedict XVI Institute immediately launched a petition supporting my call at FreeTheMass.com (QueremosLaMisa.com). Within a week, 1000 people had signed it. Within two weeks, 5000 had signed. Within a month, 45,000 had signed.
Father Moises Agudo, the patriarch of San Francisco’s Latino Catholic community, seconded my call to “Queremos La Misa”: “Coronavirus has taken much from [my parishioners]. The consolation of the Mass should not be one of these things.”
In early September, City Hall once again announced that it would issue new, more liberal guidelines for public gatherings. So under the banner “We are Essential! Free the Mass” I announced a new large event for September 20: Three processions emanating from four parishes would wind through the streets of San Francisco, meeting together at the plaza facing City Hall before heading up the hill to the Cathedral for 19 simultaneous outdoor Masses of 50 people each in various languages. We would socially distance. We would wear masks. But we would pray and take Communion together.
My intention was to stay technically within the confines of the existing health order. But then on September 14, instead of simply liberalizing worship rules, the city actually snuck in two new restrictions: a prohibition on multiple gatherings in the same general vicinity, and only one person at a time allowed in church for private prayer. The city issued these new restrictions on the same day that nail and hair salons and tattoo and massage parlors got the green light to re-open. It pushed us into civil disobedience.
The two new rules clearly targeted Catholics. The best religious liberty lawyers advised me that suing in the 9th Circuit would probably not be the best strategy. Even if we sued, it would be months or years before a Supreme Court decision might provide any relief.
Our fundamental rights are given to us by God, not by courts; the most important place to defend them is in the court of public opinion. So on September 20, on the Cathedral Plaza, I gave more than 1000 assembled Catholics a call to action: “to City Hall, you don’t matter. One person at a time in this great Cathedral to pray? What an insult. This is a mockery. They are mocking you, and even worse, they are mocking God.”
New and surprising voices emerged supporting my call to Free the Mass. Angela Alioto, a Democrat, trial discrimination lawyer, and former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle: “It shouldn’t take a court decision to correct this injustice,” she wrote. “But if the archbishop wants a lawyer, I’m available.”
Her valiant defense of the Mass symbolized for me the important breakthrough we had made by waiting: The Church went into this battle unified.
We continued to press the case of unequal treatment to Catholics in the media: EWTN, Laura Ingraham, Fox News. But the key pivot point was likely my Washington Post op-ed published on September 16, under the headline “Americans’ right to worship is being denied by governments. I won’t be silent anymore.”
The Justice Department took notice. On September 25, DOJ sent a letter to Mayor Breed, warning her that the current unconstitutional rules should be revised “promptly.” Using its new list of thousands of petition signers, the Benedict XVI Institute also flooded the mayor’s office with phone calls.
Public witness on the city streets. A big media push. Thousands of petition signers generating hundreds of calls. It worked. The city raised the limit on public worship indoors to 100 people—the maximum allowed by the state of California. True, the state rules still do not treat religious worship entirely fairly. But at least San Francisco is no longer adding additional restrictions to the Mass. The doors to our churches were open for worship again. Thus our October 3 prayer rally on the Vigil of St. Francis was transformed into a great thanksgiving from the heart of San Francisco Catholics.
When I launched this Free the Mass movement, I frankly did not know whether we would succeed. City Hall seemed so deaf to my reasoned arguments. But one thing I did know: My people needed to see me fighting for them and for the importance of the Eucharist.
What lessons have I learned and what do I see as the next steps in San Francisco and beyond?
- Unity is key. As challenging as this may seem in our divided era, we need to be one family of God.
- The diversity of our Catholic faith is potent. The participation of the Latino community in our Free the Mass/Queremos la Misa movement provided a huge boost to the cause, and was further strengthened by the visible presence of our Filipino Catholics and other Asian and Pacific Islander parishioners.
- To defend our rights, we must be and appear reasonable to the public. If I had marched into battle to Free the Mass in June, I would have appeared reckless to most of San Francisco and much of my own Church. The weeks of patient and rational, but seemingly fruitless, argument with City Hall turned out not to be fruitless after all: The city’s intransigence made our case to the public more eloquently than I could have.
- Catholics need to communicate creatively and directly with the faithful. The Benedict XVI Institute’s ability to reach out and identify concerned Catholic petition-signers was key to acting effectively, but this is more than a technical point. The world outside the Church will not tell or even understand our story. We need to become storytellers and culture creators again.
Our victory is still fragile, with COVID cases rising again. The battle to Free the Mass was and is important, but the great war to come is the war for souls. We know that the Church will face a great contraction in Mass attendance post-COVID. We must have innovative and creative ways to bring back those about to fall away from the faith.
In this war for souls, I offer this insight: The Mass in the Catholic Church stands or falls on the supernatural claims of our founder Jesus Christ: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Making the Real Presence of Christ at the Mass real in the hearts and minds of all Catholics is the way forward.
In the great war for souls to come, this will be the task of mothers and fathers as much as those of us with miters and crosiers, of artists and poets as much as theologians and intellectuals. The liturgy is the great teacher of this truth.
Salvatore J. Cordileone is the archbishop of San Francisco.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.