French bishops mobilize against 30-person rule at Mass
PARIS, France, November 28, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — French President Emmanuel Macron has reneged on his promise to order a review of rules for public worship made to the head of the bishops’ conference, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, during a phone call in the late evening of last Tuesday, sparking angry reactions on the part of many bishops, priests and faithful.
Despite his assurances, a 30-person rule has been maintained for all Masses, whether they be celebrated in tiny chapels or vast cathedrals. Strong statements were made, and this Saturday, a new emergency procedure was presented at the Council of State by the French bishops, joined by many groups, priestly associations and the Christian defense league AGRIF. A ruling is expected by Sunday morning, but some bishops have already asked Catholics to disregard the official rule and to return to public Mass for the First Sunday of Advent.
When Macron announced the 30-person rule on Tuesday at 8 p.m., the most benevolent interpretation of his offhand treatment of spiritual needs suggested that he had simply made a mistake, and meant that churches could receive the faithful for public Masses up to 30 percent of their nominal capacity from the first day of the relaxing of confinement measures, this Saturday, onwards.
The Bishops’ conference reacted promptly with a firm communiqué. The phone call from the President to Moulins-Beaufort took place near midnight, according to the latter. Macron, said the Archbishop of Reims, committed to the establishment of a “realistic gauge” by Thursday, to be followed by a further reevaluation on December 15 with regard to the COVID-19 situation (that is much better at present than Macron had forecast at the end of October).
On Thursday, however, when Prime Minister Jean Castex detailed the moderate easing of lockdown rules, he flatly stated that public worship would be restricted to 30 people.
This appears to have served as a wake-up call to the Catholic hierarchy in France. The bishops had gone out of their way to propose “sanitary protocols” for public worship at several meetings with the government, around the 10th and the 20th of November; many of them distanced themselves from public demonstrations all over France these last two Sundays in the name of “preserving dialogue” with the authorities, and they were confident that their voices had been heard by Macron and the government headed by Jean Castex.
“Anger,” “incomprehension,” “humiliation,” and even stronger words flourished on social media as ordinary Catholics protested that they would not obey such “absurd” orders.
Some 45 prayerful demonstrations have taken place all over the country, and a number of open-air Masses have been announced, while pro-Catholic commentators were able to express their exasperation at “ridiculous” and “inapplicable” rules on the mainstream media. The head of the Christian Democrat party VIA, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, launched an appeal to “civil disobedience.”
Bernard Antony, president of the AGRIF (which together with others had obtained the return of public Masses at the end of the first confinement in May), issued a statement noting that the “humiliation” to which they have been submitted has likely encouraged the French bishops to react much more firmly than they had until now. He wrote:
Whatever the result of the summary proceedings filed in this new case, AGRIF invites all its members and all French Catholics to do everything possible to attend Mass in large numbers, peacefully and in compliance with health safety rules.
They should oppose, if need be, the force of a non-violent but heavy inertia to interventions of police forces illegitimately instrumentalized for the purpose of anti-Catholic measures inspired by the abject liberticide Jacobinism of the totalitarian governmental atheocracy.
The strongest declaration on the part of the bishops came from Bernard Ginoux, bishop of Montauban, who has very consistently defended the rights of the faithful regarding assistance at Mass from the start of this crisis. In a letter to his clergy and faithful, he wrote:
Dear parish priests, dear parishioners,
In the most recent decisions of the government we are obliged to take note of the restrictions concerning public Masses. I deeply regret that the government is refusing to listen to the Catholic Church and other cults and openly ignores what the Eucharist means to us. Limiting, regardless of location, the participation in Mass to 30 faithful is an encroachment on everyone’s freedom.
The Second Vatican Council recalls that “free access to the sacraments derives directly from the right to religious liberty” (Declaration on Religious Liberty No. 13), adding that “the Church should enjoy all the freedom of action she needs to watch over the salvation of men.”
From the Law of Separation of Church and State (1905) it follows that the government is not permitted to intervene in worship or in its modalities, except in matters of public order.
Churches remain open, and the faithful who wish to come to them may do so, without any authority being empowered to establish a ban or to demand that they obtain an authorization to do so.
The presence of the faithful in a church is not in itself a public disorder.
Consequently, I ask that Masses resume in the diocese at the usual Sunday hours, applying the health protocol in force (Diocesan Circular No. 3), which we have always respected. It is the responsibility of the parish priest or his delegate to ensure that the rules established according to the health protocol are respected.
If certain persons (celebrants, liturgical actors, faithful) are fined at the end of the Mass, they should refuse to pay the fine on the spot. I ask that these facts be transmitted to me and I will instruct the lawyer of the diocese to take up these cases.
If some of you wish to say an extra Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday, do so provisionally in agreement with your pastoral teams.
I charge you with making this message widely known, as I am doing myself in regard to the media.
I deeply regret that, in a free country, we should have reached this point. A frightening pandemic does not justify a stranglehold on the Mass. I pray for all of you and I entrust myself to your prayers.
At the beginning of this time of Advent I invite you to look at the Virgin Mary, our Mother, the one who gives us the Savior, our Hope.
As such, the French bishops’ conference did not join the widening call to civil disobedience. A statement published on Friday made clear that while the current rules with their 30-person gauge are “neither comprehensible nor acceptable,” “the rules fixed by the Prime Minister are in force even though we are aware of the great difficulties in which these rules place the faithful.”
Individual bishops were less accommodating with the powers that be.
The auxiliary bishop of Versailles, Bruno Valentin, pointed out that in his diocese, priests would have to celebrate twelve Masses per Sunday to reach the necessary 2,100 Masses for all habitually practicing Catholics to be able to attend. “We want to get out of this journey to Absurdistan,” he insisted.
Bishop Marc Aillet of Bayonne told L’Incorrect that he had been “dumbfounded” by Castex’s announcement, because it “called the president’s word into question.” He slammed the “contempt” shown to “millions of believers who are deprived of the essential freedom of worship, as if worship was of no interest at all to society.” Like many of his brother bishops, he questioned the accusation made by Jean Castex saying that places of worship are well-known to favor contagion.
“No study has clarified this, and it seems obvious that no clusters have been identified in our assemblies, which would be easy since the faithful are regular worshippers in our churches and they all know each other. There has never been an identified cluster, so I would like him to show precise, statistical and scientific proof to be able to put forward such an untruth,” added Aillet.
Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon also condemned the “contempt” of the State towards Catholics, calling the 30-person limit “insulting.”
“Many Christians have been scandalized by this discriminatory measure, which is both unacceptable and unrealistic, and which forces us to selective sorting of the faithful. The inconsistency and injustice of the latest measures is fracturing society by opposing small traders and large stores, theaters and restaurants, essential and non-essential activities.”
Bishop Rey asked his clergy to celebrate several Masses per day and not to concelebrate; he also stated that the faithful of his diocese can accomplish their Sunday obligation on another day of the week. But he also committed to the fact that “no selection, segregation or limitation of the People of God who present themselves in church” will take place. Bishop Rey gave his “personal guarantee” that people who may find themselves in difficulties because of the rules will be under his “protection.”
Echoes to these firm statements came from unexpected quarters. Bishop Delmas of Angers invited his priests to celebrate multiple Masses so as to ensure no more than 30 people took part, but added: “Where that is not possible, priests are not there to count the faithful.”
In Rouen, Bishop Dominique Lebrun said he found the rule “unbelievable.”
“Is there a minister who has considered what a priest should do and say when the 31st participant presents himself at the church? What would a Mass with compulsory reservation mean?” He added that the government is placing the Church — priests and faithful” in an “untenable position.”
During the hearing that took place on Saturday afternoon at the Council of State, the presiding judge repeatedly asked the representative of the government, Mrs. Pascale Léglise (“l’église” means “the church” in French) why the government had retained the rule of 30 participants.
First answer: “When a Mass takes place people don’t sit in the four corners of the church.” Second answer: “Operas are closed, too, even the Opéra Bastille” (a vast modern theater in Paris). Third answer: “I don’t know how they calculated the gauge.”
At the end of the hearing, the presiding judge promised to hand down his decision “a bit late this evening, or a bit early tomorrow morning.”
Given that tomorrow is Sunday, many Catholics are hoping the government’s decree will be suspended regarding public Masses. At any rate, the fact that the Council of State organized a hearing on Saturday afternoon and that such a prompt decision has been announced, is already a sign that Catholics are being taken seriously by France’s highest administrative court.