Last week, the Diocese of Brooklyn, which I lead, filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking for relief from restrictions placed on churches, even though they haven’t contributed to the recent COVID-19 spikes. In doing so, we are taking a stand for religious liberty and against irrational and arbitrary lockdown measures.
Last Sunday, we had to all but shutter 28 Catholic churches throughout Brooklyn and Queens, because they’re located in Gov. Cuomo’s red and orange zones. We could only admit 10 people to red-zone churches, 25 to orange-zone churches. Words can’t express my disappointment.
The restrictions defy logic. Our churches have for months safely operated without any significant outbreaks. To deny the faithful the ability to come to church and take part in the celebration of the Eucharist, when they have adhered to our strict safety protocols, is an insulting violation of their fundamental right to worship.
Across our 186 churches in Brooklyn and Queens, no one is allowed to participate in Mass without a mask. Everyone sits six feet apart, and the pews in between have been roped off. Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing works.
In addition, there are sanitizers at the entrances to all churches. There are markers on the floor so people stand six feet apart on the communion line and when entering and exiting services. The services themselves, including Holy Communion, have been altered to ensure safety and avoid contact. Churches are sanitized in between Masses.
These safety protocols were spearheaded by former New York City Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito, who guided us to a safe opening of our churches and schools.
Nor do restrictions take account of the sheer size of our churches in the red and orange zones. Some are massive, able to fit anywhere between 500 to 1,000 people. Given these scales, limiting attendance to 10 or 25 people is unfounded. No priest should be forced to select only a small group of parishioners from his congregation to attend Mass.
Most important, places of worship should be considered essential to the life of the community and not be lumped in with theaters and recreational facilities as “nonessential.”
As a bishop, a successor of the Apostles, I have a sacred duty to spiritually provide for all parishioners. And that means defending their right to attend Mass. I have heard from many Catholics who are devastated by this latest round of closures. At the height of the pandemic, I made the difficult decision to close all of our churches, and our parishioners couldn’t receive the sacrament of Holy Communion during the holiest days of our calendar, Holy Week and Easter.
While Mass can be seen at home on television or via the Internet, the effective closure of the 28 churches means our people will have to again forego receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, one of the most central and sacred acts in the Catholic Church. That, indeed, is the most painful part, because the closures affect our diverse communities.
The 28 churches serve Catholics of all nationalities, races and ethnicities. Collectively in our diocese, we celebrate Mass in 33 languages but form one community of believers.
I understand that our state and city leaders have the immense responsibility to keep everyone safe. I share that responsibility with them on behalf of the 1.5 million Catholics in our diocese. If I thought our safety measures weren’t working, I would be the first to impose additional limitations. But that is not the case.
During these times, we need the power of prayer and the Eucharist to sustain us. I pray that all of us in Brooklyn and Queens will be able to get back to church soon. And most of all, I pray for an end to this terrible virus, which has taken the lives of too many people, including two of our own beloved priests.
While our request for a temporary restraining order was denied, the judge in the case acknowledged the difficulty in rendering the decision. He encouraged us to pursue a preliminary injunction, which would allow the diocesan case to be explained in greater detail. We are looking at all our legal options as we pursue what is right.
Catholics throughout Brooklyn and Queens shouldn’t be penalized by a broad-brush approach when we are not the problem. We will continue to press the courts and our elected officials in this battle to vindicate our fundamental constitutional rights. All while we continue to be a model for safety in our religious community.
Nicholas DiMarzio is the seventh bishop of Brooklyn.
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