PORTSMOUTH, U.K., April 3, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) ― An English bishop has admitted that he is reflecting on his decision to close the churches of his diocese in the context of other public places, including places of worship, remaining open.
Bishop Philip Egan of the Diocese of Portsmouth wrote of his agony and confusion in the face of the British government’s self-contradictory orders regarding church closures.
“It was an agonising decision as a priest and as a Bishop to mandate the cessation of the public celebration of the Sacraments and to close our churches,” he wrote last Sunday.
“Regarding the latter, there has been a bit of confusion. In his address last week, the Prime Minister spoke of the closure of places of worship. Yet another arm of government seemed to suggest that they might be kept open, not for gatherings for public worship but for visits,” he continued.
“Over the last days, as I have been going out for my (government permitted, once a day) walk, I’ve noticed that supermarkets and a few shops are open and of course some people are going out to work. Some synagogues and mosques are open.”
Egan said that he shut the churches “very reluctantly in order not to be out of step with other dioceses” and that it is “a great sadness” to him that people cannot pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
The bishop of Portsmouth is, however, making the sacraments available to the laity on request.
“The Lord is offering us all the spiritual resources we need to fight and overcome this virus, to contribute to the common good and to care for the sick and those in need,” he said.
“We need therefore to be faithful to God’s Word, preaching the Good News, administering the Sacraments upon request and offering pastoral care to God’s people,” he continued.
“Our clergy and our people will have to find new and creative ways of doing this.”
Egan praised the “inventive ways” in which the clergy are already ministering to the faithful, including live-streaming Masses, prayers, and meetings and calling them on the phone. He encouraged his priests to find safe ways of hearing confessions.
One issue that has troubled English Catholics is that their bishops advised the British government to keep the churches shut. The bishop of Portsmouth again highlighted the difference between the response of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to the coronavirus pandemic and the less stringent stipulations of the British government when he questioned his own suspension of funeral masses.
“Funerals are an area too that we may need to seek clarification about,” he wrote.
“My first Decree mandated that as churches were closed, funerals should take place at the graveside or in the crematorium only, and of course be limited to the immediate family. This was in line with what the Bishops’ Conference recommended,” he continued.
“However, the Prime Minister in his address has suggested that funerals could go ahead in places of worship, with social-distancing etc. The Decree remains in place, yet I need to take advice as to whether it might be possible to permit a Requiem liturgy in church with the immediate family only present.”
The most recent recommendations of the British government regarding funerals is that the number of mourners be restricted so that they can all remain about seven feet (two meters) apart. Only members of their own household and close family members should attend. If the deceased has no household or family members, “then it is possible for a modest number of friends to attend.” The place where the service is held must be thoroughly cleaned before and afterward. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms may not attend.
Egan also spoke openly of his worry that the dying are not receiving adequate spiritual care and explained what he is doing to remedy the situation.
“I worry about the pastoral care of the dying and how to administer to them the Last Rites and the Apostolic Pardon,” he wrote.
“In relation to our major hospitals, our chief hospital chaplain, Fr. Joe McNerny, has been working with the NHS [British National Health Service] authorities across the Diocese to ensure that Catholic priests called in to hospitals and care homes will be given access and provided with the appropriate protective clothing in order to reach the dying,” he continued.
“However, visiting those who are being cared for in places other than hospitals has to be on a case by case basis. We all know how crucial this ministry is. Please pray that no Catholic dies without the help of Mother Church.”
The bishop also spoke of his concern that people would begin to devalue the sacraments.
Dr. Joseph Shaw of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales praised Bishop Egan’s letter.
“Bishop Egan’s recent communication is a model of how bishops should be responding to the crisis,” Shaw told LifeSiteNews.
“He does not claim certainty about what is not certain, he emphasises the importance of the spiritual and not only of the corporeal, and he encourages his priests to be ‘imaginative’ and do as much, in the administration of the Sacraments, as they safely can, rather than the bare minimum: ‘if someone asks for a sacrament, say, Confession, I’m sure that most priests will find a creative way of responding, within the necessary safeguards,’” he continued.
“In this Bishop Egan shows real pastoral concern and leadership.”
Dr. Alan Fimister, an English scholar at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, told LifeSiteNews that Bishop Egan is “rightly concerned that the current restrictions might inadvertently imply that receiving sacraments is not important.”
“In recent times Catholics have lost sight of the objective and sacrificial nature of the Mass and of the importance of confession and have not prepared themselves well to receive communion,” he told LifeSiteNews via social media.
“Managed well the present crisis could be an occasion to re-establish in the minds of the faithful (lay and ordained) by the heroic efforts that should be made to make them safely available the true importance of the Mass and of receiving the sacraments worthily in the right order and with the right dispositions.”
Fimister suggested that the bishops should work out how many people can safely fit, with ventilation, proper spacing, and disinfection before and after Mass, into any given church and then have the faithful book themselves in for Masses.
LifeSiteNews reached out to the Diocese of Portsmouth but has not yet received a response.