Today I signed a document that I never thought I'd issue: a decree closing our churches to the public celebration of the Eucharist. You can read the full text of the decree here.
How did it come to this? On December 26 the Ontario government put all of the province in a state of lockdown (a so-called "grey zone") due to rising COVID-19 cases. It apparently was not enough, so three days ago Premier Ford announced that the government would be declaring a state of emergency across the province, with even more restrictions, and coupled with a special "Stay-at-Home" order. In particular, gatherings outside was to be limited to 5 people, and indoor gatherings were forbidden entirely.
The diocese, of course, started to get phone calls right away from parishes wanting to know what we should do for the weekend masses. That said, I do not like relying on mere press releases regarding such matters -- I wanted to see the government decree itself, so that we could decide on our course of action in a way that was fully informed.
Our churches had already come came under new restrictions with the December 26 lockdown, reducing the number of people who could attend mass from 30% capacity to a maximum of 10, regardless of church size. As it turned out, this Stay-at-Home order did not change that at all. Strangely, this meant that gatherings outdoors were limited to 5, unless they were for worship: in that case, it was still 10! And indoor worship services were still permitted -- the only type of gathering, it would seem, that enjoyed that possibility.
While the numbers had not changed, however, the contact clearly had. I met with the College of Consultors along with the regional chairs yesterday, and the general mood of the group was that we should be encouraging people to, well, stay at home. And that meant closing our churches.
That's a really serious decision to make. Our tradition, for example, says that a pastor of a parish "is to see to it that the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly of the faithful". I know this passage well, because it is taken from the official description of a parish priest. When I was a seminarian I used to read that description and think to myself, "This is what I want to do." And yet, here we were, seemingly telling our parishes to *not* do what was central to their life. Ouch.
I decided to widen the consultation before coming to a conclusion. I contacted the bishops of the neighbouring dioceses to see what they were doing. Some had decided to stay with the same policy prior to the state of emergency (i.e. stick with the limit of 10), while others were closing up. Toronto, I learned, had already previously decided to cancel all masses more specifically.
I also contacted the three public health authorities (Algoma, Sudbury, and Nipissing-Parry Sound) that have resposibility for some part of the diocese. They confirmed the details of the decree, but as we spoke it became clear that they really hoped that the priority was going to be for people to actually stay at home. One woman, in particular, mentioned that she was a catechist at her parish, and that it broke her heart to contemplate the closing of the churches. That said, when she put on her public health hat, she knew how important it was for people to stay at home.
I was ready to move in that direction, but I wanted to present these findings to the College of Consultors and regional chairs once again. There is no question that by the end of the process we had looked at every angle. The meeting ended by 4 pm, and the process of writing and communicating the diocesan decree.
Writing the actual text of a decree is something I'm fairly comfortable with, as I had taken courses years ago in legal writing. Still, while I knew what needed to be written, I wanted to make sure it would be understood. I also wanted to publish it in both English and French simultaneously. So we decided to do something new. I created a document in Google Docs and used the sharing function to allow members of our team to edit it. We may have been in different rooms, but we were able to speak by conference call and work together with amazing efficiency. 4 hours later we had a decree, a press release, and a note to the pastoral staff of the diocese ready to go, and all in both languages.
Of course, it was 4 hours later, so I was beat. I headed home, wondering how to take this to the next level. For the real question is not about the closing of churches -- it's about what we do once they are closed, to continue the pastoral care of our people.