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Monday, September 21, 2020

The Covid-19 Pandemic - an excuse to strangle the practice of religion?

Thursday, September 24th - 6:40 p.m. 

So the meeting will be tomorrow between the reps of the Table Interreligieuse du Québec and the Directeur de la Santé Publique. You know, we many not often say it, but we consistently pray for our governors, for those who hold public office and serve the common good. Well should we pray for them for their burdens of responsibility are often very heavy when they are not crushing. Saint Paul made it clear that, while we have been given a true belonging to the Kingdom of God initiated by Jesus; we nevertheless live in this world and for this reason we have a serious burden of responsibility to daily pray for those who govern us, our families and our communities. So, if you haven't already been doing it, please, join us in praying with sincere minds and enthusiastic hearts for the health, prosperity, and wisdom of our governors and the welfare of their families, not only tonight and tomorrow, but every day let us heartily pray for our political leaders and civil servants in our city, province, and nation. Peace to you and your families. 

Wednesday, September 23rd - 4:20 p.m. 

Well, many people have used up considerable quantities of ink and saliva these past few days about all these developments here in Québec. Finally, there is to be on Friday a meeting of the director of public health in Québec with representatives of the interreligious table in Québec. This will be the first time that a member of our provincial government will exchange words directly with representatives of the R.C. Church in Québec, the AEQ, the Assembly of Bishops of Québec since I don't know when, at least in the last six months. Yet, as Cardinal Lacroix recently explained, since the beginning of the outbreak of the Pandemic in Québec the bishops have tried to speak directly with the government but without success, without so much as a reply to their calls, and messages, and all attempts to communicate.

The proof came a few days ago with the government's unilateral decision to reduce the limit of the number of people to be allowed to gather for religious services from 250 to 50 and in orange zone to 25 despite the fact that until now no case of infection or contagion has been documented as a result of church Sunday services anywhere in Quebec in any of our churches. If the government had taken into account the actual measures in fact put into place everywhere in Québec in all of our churches they would have realized that there continues to be no danger of propagation in our churches themselves. For them to take it out on the churches and Sunday gatherings is a flagrant injustice and frankly a decision that is incomprehensible.

We acknowledge with gratitude the sense of social responsibility demonstrated by our government since the beginning of the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Quebec. We listened and watched with great interest and assiduity the daily televised conferences by the director of public health and his colleauges. We sympathize with the social pressure that once again weighs heavily on their shoulders and wish to continue to support them as responsible partners. Besides, the bishops and all our churches were among the first to not only follow the public health protocols but in some instances we even anticipated them or surpassed them.

We call on our governors to target the actual active hot spots of contagion of the virus. If there is some concern over spontaneous gatherings that might take place after certain religious events; well then let's target those and leave Sunday services alone. None of our churches have had after Mass coffee since before the Pandemic outbreak. Since March our churches have actually forbidden such gatherings as those that might take place after Baptisms, weddings, funerals, Confirmations, first Confession, first Communion, and so on. Until recently these religious events were indefinitely postponed.

So since March there have been no such gatherings neither in our churches nor in our halls or even outside, neither planned nor spontaneously. Until the recent deconfinement our churches rather looked like places haunted only by ghosts where only priests, a few staff and volunteers dared to venture in order to set up and transmit on social media a Sunday or weekday Mass. As for the deconfinement itself, it was done gradually to the point that some churches still haven't reopened. We have only just begun in some places to plan for and allow funerals, weddings, and other sacraments. In any event, whenever such events are held it is always with rigorous implementation of public health protocols.

Furthermore, each person welcomed into our churches are met by carefully formed volunteers who assure they sanitize their hands and then explain to them where to go and how to maintain social distancing and keeping on their mask at all times while moving about or replying to the few dialogues during the Liturgy, walking in the aisles only in the direction indicated by the arrows on the floor, avoiding the closed benches, only members of the same household being able to sit together, and so on. 

Unlike bars and brasseries and restaurants, our churches don't welcome people who just spontaneously decide to go or who plan to go once in a while. Sunday Mass is an obligation and a necessity of faith for catholic christians because it is an integral part of their life as believers, as it is no doubt also for those who are believers in other religious traditions. The practice of the faith is not a private activity for our citizens but it is an integral part of their social life and of their belonging to our society. Any and all actions which forbid or render impossible the practice of the faith is a serious prejudice against the human and civil rights of every citizen. 

We sincerely and energetically want to cooperate with our governors, but please no longer take any measures which would have as direct effect making it impossible for citizens to practice their faith and, by the same token, strangle to death our churches instead of properly targetting the actual hot spots of the virus and its propagation.

Monday, September 21st, 2020 - 7:12 p.m. Montreal. Greetings dear Reader. By now you are no doubt aware of the measures taken yesterday and today to put severe restrictions on religious assemblies all over the province. This morning, in a state of shock, I first wrote my reflections in French on my blogue of that language in order to give expression to the anger if not rage that I felt under the effects of that shock. 

Before I give free rein to my thoughts in English, you may want to read - if you haven't already done so - the media statement of the Assembly of Québec Bishops - AEQ - released this morning. It catches the general sense of grave injustice created by the public health's severe restrictions on religious assemblies just published and intended to take immediate effect. Practically speaking, the Bishops of Québec are united in declaring that no changes will be made by any of the churches under their jurisdiction in the direction of further restrictions. They are quite satisfied with the already sufficiently drastic health measures that have so carefully been put into practice in all their churches; that they deem no further restrictions are necessary and that the hot spots of contagion are to be found elsewhere than in churches.

First, before going any further, let it be eminently clear that we generally are extremely grateful to our governments at all levels, to all our public servants, and to all those at the service of the general population for their devoted service and considerable efforts in promoting and defending the common good and the good health of all citizens in this land. We especially wish to thank and affirm the various agents of the public health system and the provincial leadership for public health for their untiring efforts since the outbreak of this Pandemic in Québec. To all of you, and you know who you are, THANK YOU! 

However, the fact remains that this latest policy of the public health leadership to further restrict religious assemblies throughout the province is a glaring act of public injustice to the point of being scandalous! 

Consider for a moment the general behaviour of citizens in our western democratic societies. Where do you expect to find the greatest contempt for the regulations published by public health authorities? In bars and brasseries or in churches, synagogues, and mosques? After sports events at the emptying of arenas or after religious services at the emptying of places of worship? I have nothing against bars and brasseries or sports arenas and fields as such, having frequented such establishments and places myself.

The fact remains that no emptying of a church has generated riots in which crowds smash windows and loot businesses as has happened more than once in this city after Canadiens' hockey games. No religious service in western religious traditions keeps people in worship longer than around 60 minutes, unlike the 1 to 3 hours people will generally spend in a bar or brasserie or sports event. No one leaving a place of worship after attending and participating in religious worship is at risk to leave intoxicated or in any other way debilitated or likely to pose a threat to public order and security.

Since the start of the Pandemic and the subsequent deconfinement you will no longer see gatherings around the coffee urn to chat and share news in the parish hall - there are no longer any spontaneous gatherings - in contrast to the many liberties taken by many citizens all over the province on sports fields and in all kinds of scheduled, planned and spontaneous events, coinciding with the upspike in cases of Covid-19 infections in Québec. In fact our religious leaders are still laboring over when and how to permit funerals, weddings, baptisms and other ESSENTIAL religious celebrations in the lives of people whose only "crime" is to have the audacity to have no choice but be different from general trends by wanting to practice their faith and religion.

I will be so bold as to declare my sincere belief that no gathering of citizens has imposed the public health measures with more rigour than the religious gatherings for worship of God in our churches since the beginning of the deconfinement: sterilization of hands on entering and leaving and before receiving Holy Communion; wearing of the mask during the entire celebration except for consuming the host; social distancing in the pews and also while moving around; no boiserous singing but only muted singing behind the mask; and no touching of others at the sign of peace. In short, worship has become very muted and subdued in comparison to before the Pandemic. 

A dear friend of mine is on the organizing committee of a Protestant church and, early on before the actual deconfinement was fully implemented everywhere, asked me to send him the protocols drawn up by the Diocese of Montreal, knowing as he did from experience how thorough and stringent our leaders have been in the past and continue to be today; even to the point of going beyond what is expected. He knew that with our protocols his local church would be ahead of the game and find itself well placed to put into place their own protocols for deconfinement.

As for Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Montreal, I have heard that some churches allow people to remove their mask while seated quietly in their pew, knowing full well that some people - especially the elderly but also those with respiratory restrictions - will breathe more easily without their mask. The only condition very clearly explained and enforced is that people put their mask back on for speaking their parts of the few dialogues during the service and before moving out of their pew for Communion or to otherwise move around.

From the sanctuary, very well distanced from the assembly, the priest, deacon if any, the reader(s), and singer remove their mask in order to be heard and then put it back on especially when about to move towards others, such as for the distribution of Holy Communion.

Altar servers have been banished from the sanctuary altogether and the priest alone prepares the offerings and accessories at the altar, first washing his hands before touching anything. The hosts to be distributed as Holy Communion after the consecration are placed before Mass at the end of the altar and far from where the priest will be standing; so that his breath will be a good meter away and not land on them. 

Despite all these measures carefully and strictly observed in our churches, in the past 24 hours or so civil authorities to all appearances casually targetted religious institutions as though churches and other places of worship had been deemed to be burning furnaces of contagion and the hotbeds of irresponsible and revolutionary behaviours. Where are the reports of misdemeanours on the part of any churches which supposedly might have failed to observe the protocols of public health? Where are the facts concerning the infection of members of churches or their personnel or volunteers? Which are those churches that, if they had cases of infection among their members or personnel or volunteers did not immediately put them in quarantine? Where are the data to substantiate this drastic claw back in deconfinement drastically reducing the limits for religious assemblies from 250 to 50 and even 25?

This situation is simply illogical. How are we to understand these restrictive measures targetting with no proven justification all places of religious worship without showing any effort to report facts and draw intelligent conclusions? Is there actual medical surveillance evidence clearly identifying churches as hotbeds of contagion? If not, then on what basis have these restrictive measures been taken? Could there be some hidden, even dark, agenda at work, perhaps even without the overt knowledge of the civil authorities or perhaps subconsciously determined to target and strangle the very practice of religion as such? Such an agenda would be dark indeed.

One can understand and grant how people for whom the practice of religion might be strange and incomprehensible could in their eyes see the practice of religion as a relic from the past when humanity was given to ignorance and superstition. It may even be that for such a person the practice of religion as such might be considered a dangerous rival to the institution of government for the attention of the population. In other words, certain people might conceive of the practice of religion as a threatening competitor for power in society, or even as an obstacle to governance, as a sort of threat to the effective unfolding of political and social power to govern. 

Notwithstanding some historical social abuses often quoted by the opponents of religion - and these aberrations were for the most part abuses that took place in the political and economic spheres when populations looked to church leaders to protect them from the excesses of exploitation by kings and princes and emperors - the historical record in fact shows that in Christianity - especially in Catholic Christianity - nothing could be further from the truth. Of course wherever you have people you will find differences of opinion. 

However, the fact remains that people who legitimately practice their religion - not those who simply claim to do so while practicing all manner of crime and abuse and violence while claiming to do so in the name of the deity - but those who are actually practicing their religion, and most especially those who are following Jesus and putting into practice his teachings and commands; well, such people are generally among the first to serve public order and peace. Many such people gave their lives during the declared wars of the 20th century and many of their names adorn memorials on the walls of their places of worship. 

We who are citizens of our country here would therefore we well situated to expect from those who hold power and govern the common good to take into account all these facts, the actual facts, and the actual behaviour of all those who continue to have the audacity to practice their faith and religion. Let them abstain from "taking it out on" and targetting religious assemblies of worship in what can only appear to be a vain and misguided attempt to contain the latest new outbreaks of Covid-19 infection. 

The actual causes of new cases of infection are most certainly to be found anywhere else than in our churches on Sunday mornings or Saturday afternoons or even during the week. I cannot speak for synagogues and mosques, but I suspect that their leaders and members could probably have the same assurance. So please, stop picking so randomly and unjustly on your fellow citizens who have the audacity and temerity to insist on practicing their faith and religion.

Here was the end of my first reflection in French this morning. Then, after a good lunch, conversation with fellow residents, and the opportunity to "take a step back", I added a few more thoughts which follow here below.

13:45... having taken a step back...

 If you don't already know it, dear Reader, please let me assure you that we Catholic Christians are pacifists. This morning while still in shock I wrote my consternation at these sudden restrictive measures specifically targetting churches and other places of religious worship. Failing the presentation of any factual evidence to support such restrictions which the public authorities could very well have provided, I could only ask myself a great number of questions on what possible motives might have spawned these drastic measures. 

Normally, the Catholic Christian outlook will give the benefit of the doubt when trying to understand the perplexing behaviour of others before questioning their intentions. At this point there appears to be no reason to believe that the cause is ignorance regarding the reality or identity or nature or behaviours of those folks who dare to practice their faith and religion. 

Having put aside ignorance, at this point we might also put aside malice as potential motivation for these restrictive measures; that is, the deliberate intention of strangling the civil rights of ordinary folks who dare to practice their faith and religion. 

So if it isn't ignorance or malice, one might conceive of unconsciousness or forgetfulness. It could just be an error of perspective, since churches are so many and so different one from the other. Under normal circumstances churches would welcome anywhere from 25 to over 1,000 people at any one time for a single religious service. This might cause churches as such to be a general category that might be difficult to define without giving it greater attention, observation, time, and care. One could see how it might seem easier when under great pressure to just sweep them all away with a single stroke, and "BAM!" Let's impose more restrictions on them all.

Now, without passing judgment on anyone's intentions, the fact remains that these sudden new restrictions  on assemblies for the purpose of religious worship remain incomprehensible, unjust, negatively discriminatory, and indefensible. They are nothing short of a public scandal. However, as it is a normal faculty of human beings to make mistakes from time to time; one can expect institutions governed by human beings to also make mistakes.

For this reason, we fully expect the public health authority to realize the unintended effects of these sudden and baseless restrictions to limit the number of people to be admitted to worship assemblies, and that it is highly desirable to rescind these new restrictions as soon as possible, even before we get to the days for worship this coming weekend: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, and Saturday afternoon and Sunday for Christians.

Here then is a sincere and good hearted plea to all levels of our public health institutions and all of their leaders - particularly at the provincial level - to make a public show of wisdom and solidarity with all of their fellow citizens who dare to practice their faith and religion and whose only "crime" is to insist on practicing their faith and religion publicly and not merely in the privacy of their homes. 

To retract these measures publicly will in no way be an admission of weakness on the part of public health authorities, but on the contrary, will be plainly seen as evidence of wisdom and humility, those qualities that are without doubt most desirable for every person at the service of the general population. Your public stature in our eyes will not be diminished in doing so, but on the contrary, will be greatly enhanced.

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