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St. James Cathedral in Riga, LatviaWikiCommons

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RIGA, Latvia, May 1, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A Latvian archbishop said the country’s faithful have been publicly receiving all sacraments throughout the coronavirus pandemic after spiritual leaders convinced authorities that “spiritual food is no less important than physical food” and that “man does not live of bread alone.”

Latvia is a small state in Eastern Europe, slightly larger than West Virginia, bordering both the Baltic Sea and Russia. The country’s population is under two million people, and Lutheranism is the predominant religion. About 20 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.

Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs of Riga sent a statement to Zenit, a Catholic news agency, in which he explained the importance of continuous dialog with government authorities.

The archbishop, and other Catholics, made their case by pointing out how the public celebration of the sacraments, even amid a pandemic, would be beneficial to the state by reducing social tensions.

“Lately, psychiatrists have pointed out the worsening of mental problems because of the restrictions, Stankevičs said. “In this regard, the church helps the society to maintain its psychological and mental health in times of crisis.”

The archbishop credited the success of his efforts, as well as the efforts of other Christians, “to the openness of the representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior.” He added that it was important to have all Christian churches and communities maintain a “united position” before the government.

While the government had the intention of banning all public gatherings in mid-March, the “intense dialogue” between Jānis Bordāns, Latvia’s Minister of Justice, and representatives of various Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, led to the agreement “that the clergy should continue to celebrate Mass because it is their duty.”

“Moreover, in Masses the participation was permitted of ministers, readers, and singers because the clergy can’t celebrate Mass on its own,” Archbishop Stankevičs said. “It was also agreed that individual faithful could be in the church during the Holy Mass, but their number couldn’t be more than 50 people.”

Stankevičs lamented that stores, bars, and entertainment venues were not limited as to the number of visitors they could host at a time.

At the end of March, Latvian Catholics accepted social distancing measures, as well as cutting the number of people allowed to be present during Mass to 25. During the holiest days of the Catholic year, around Easter, police were present to monitor if the parishes were complying with the government’s regulations.

Before Easter, the government also “wanted to establish a rule that a person could stay in church for no more than 15 minutes, but we succeeded in annulling it.”

The blessing of food for Easter, which is a popular custom in many parts of Europe, “was held in many places outside churches” in order to accommodate more than 25 faithful.

As in other countries, funerals and marriages were limited to very few participants.

According to Worldometer, there are less than 1,000 cases of coronavirus in Latvia. So far, only 16 deaths have been recorded.

In the United States, based on the First Amendment, many states included exemptions for religious gatherings in their decrees issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Pew Research Center documented, only 10 states went ahead and outright banned worship services. Those states include California, New York, and Illinois.

However, bishops across the country canceled all public Masses.

Recently, the bishops of Iowa said, “In light of the expectation that positive cases of COVID-19 will peak in Iowa in the next few weeks, we have decided it would be most prudent for now to continue to follow the liturgical restrictions we have in place, including the suspension of public Masses.”

In fact, a return of public Masses might be months away. “Without an effective vaccine or widespread testing and contact data that justifies a change in course, we simply are not at a place where we can resume our previous prayer practices,” the bishops argued.

The bishops’ statement came after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed Iowans on April 27 to “gather for spiritual or religious purposes, so long as churches, synagogues, or other hosts of a spiritual or religious gathering take reasonable measures to ensure social distancing of employees, volunteers, and other participants, increased hygiene practices, and other public health measures to reduce the risk of further spread of COVID-19,” beginning May 1.