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A priest of the Society of St. Pius X offers Mass in 2015YouTube / SSPX

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ARLINGTON, Virginia, April 1, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The Catholic Diocese of Arlington has criticized the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) for offering Mass during the coronavirus pandemic, calling the group “schismatic” and implying it was not following public health guidance.

The Diocese of Arlington announced on March 16 that all public Masses are suspended until further notice because of the coronavirus. Governor Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 10 people on March 24.

On Sunday, March 29, the SSPX offered an invite-only outdoor Mass in Front Royal, Virginia – one of the commonwealth’s Catholic hubs, home to Christendom College and a large homeschooling population – during which attendees remained in their cars. The Mass, offered by a priest who came from Maryland, meticulously followed public health guidelines and “social distancing” recommendations, and the SSPX spoke with local authorities beforehand in order to ensure it was complying with all relevant laws and guidelines.

The SSPX is a priestly society founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. They seek to share the truth of the Catholic faith in the modern world, a task their website says they view as “especially necessary considering the spread of atheism, agnosticism, and religious indifference.” 

The group’s canonical status is said to be “irregular,” although it has moved closer to full Communion with Rome recently. Since the beginning of the Year of Mercy (late 2015), Pope Francis has granted all SSPX priests jurisdiction to hear Confessions around the world. Catholics may also validly and licitly be married by SSPX priests, where local bishops have given their permission. The SSPX claim that the state of the crisis in the Church is so bad they have “supplied jurisdiction” that allows its priests the freedom to operate outside the authority of ordinary diocesan bishops.  

Many Protestant churches have been hosting similar “drive-in” services during which parishioners remain in their cars so as not to violate state orders against “gatherings” of 10 or more people. 

“Based on recommendations from the public health and scientific communities, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge maintains his directive that all public Masses in the Diocese of Arlington are suspended until further notice,” the Diocese of Arlington said in its initial statement on Sunday, March 29. “We have been notified that the Society of Saint Pius X, which is a schismatic sect and not in full communion with the Holy See, is holding Masses in Front Royal, VA. This group did not request permission for their gathering from the Diocese of Arlington.”

“Bishop Burbidge highly encourages the faithful to follow the guidance of public health and scientific leaders and stay home whenever possible. In order to stop the spread of coronavirus, all people, including those of religious faith, must be willing to make temporary, uncomfortable sacrifices for the long-term good and health of the community.”

LifeSiteNews asked the diocese why it would expect a “schismatic” group to ask its permission to gather, and if the diocese makes similar requests of the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church considers the Orthodox as in schism. This journalist also noted that Pope Francis has granted SSPX priests faculties to hear Confessions. 

Amber Roseboom, Director of Media Relations for the Diocese of Arlington, told LifeSiteNews via email, “The aim of the diocesan statement regarding the celebration of Mass by priests of the Society of St. Pius X within the Diocese of Arlington was to clarify for members of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington that SSPX does not have canonical standing in the Catholic Church and is not in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

“Another aim of the statement regarding the celebration of Mass by priests of this society was to make clear to the faithful that this liturgy was not associated with the Diocese of Arlington, especially because the celebration contradicts the directives currently in place for the Diocese,” she wrote.

‘The supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls’

LifeSiteNews also asked the Diocese of Arlington if there are any plans to reinstate public Masses, conducted in a way that follows “the guidance of public health and scientific leaders.” It would seem the setup of the SSPX’s outdoor, semi-private “car Mass,” which was offered after consultation with state authorities, met that criteria. 

Northam’s new “stay-at-home” order, which contains language allowing people to travel to their “place of worship” and seems to permit an outdoor “parking lot” “car Mass” or similar church gathering of people inside their cars, is in effect until June 10 (the day after Virginia’s Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. House and Senate). That order was issued March 30.

One of the precepts of the Catholic Church is that the faithful receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season. Pentecost this year is on May 31. 

Roseboom told LifeSite:

The faithful should be assured that the Diocese of Arlington continually reassesses our response to this evolving situation of the spread of the coronavirus, including the directives and guidelines regarding the celebration of public Masses. This assessment is always carried out with prayer for God’s guidance and grounded in the pastoral good of the faithful, the allowances permitted by Canon Law, and the most up-to-date recommendations from infectious disease and pandemic response experts.

The faithful and clergy of in [sic] the Diocese of Arlington have sent many expressions of gratitude for the continued spiritual and pastoral care they are receiving. These include, especially, keeping our churches open for private prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. We are all also grateful to our devout priests who continue to make themselves available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the many parishes who are able to live-stream Sunday Masses and liturgies throughout Holy Week so that the faithful can unite in prayer and make an Act of Spiritual Communion so that, united in God, we may be one as the Body of Christ.

LifeSiteNews has reached out to the SSPX for comment and will update this article if they send one.

Catholics across the U.S. are without access to public Masses and in certain dioceses without access to Confession or even the Last Rites. Some dioceses in Canada and the U.S. have also ordered priests to lock their church doors so the faithful may not pray privately inside.

Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Mary Most Holy in Astana, Kazakhstan and one of the most outspoken defenders of Catholic orthodoxy today, has stated that a priest, using discretion and following the necessary health precautions “has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful.”

Directives canceling all public Masses “are a pure human law; however, the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls,” said Schneider.

“Priests in such a situation have to be extremely creative in order to provide for the faithful, even for a small group, the celebration of Holy Mass and the reception of the sacraments. Such was the pastoral behavior of all confessor and martyr priests in the time of persecution,” he added.