UPDATED: US bishop reverses decision for priests to give Communion on Holy Thursday
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April 3, 2020, 10:30 AM EST update: Bishop Robert J. Baker wrote today in the Diocese of Birmingham’s newspaper One Voice that he now deems it best to “delay” distribution of Holy Communion: “Conscious of the spiritual needs of our people, I sent a memo to priests, deacons, and others who minister in the diocese earlier this week appealing to them to consider distributing Communion in an appropriate way on Holy Thursday – being careful to observe proper hygiene given our present circumstances. Since then, I have heard arguments for and against this initiative (some of which were even presented in a respectful manner), and have ultimately decided that it is best to delay it a bit longer. It seems that scientists do not yet agree on whether the virus can be passed through the air. As long as the virus is still so prevalent (it has not yet peaked in Alabama) and we do not yet have clear answers on such weighty issues, I now judge it best that we revisit the possibility of distributing Holy Communion after Easter.”
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, April 2, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Bishop Robert J. Baker, the outgoing head of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, has encouraged his priests to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful on Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.
“With this letter I wish to appeal to your pastoral sensitivity and ask that you find an appropriate way to distribute Holy Communion to your people on Holy Thursday, April 9, 2020,” the bishop wrote on March 31.
“I am very conscious of the hardship that the suspension of public worship has caused for our people, who are so devoted to Our Lord in the Eucharist,” he continued.
Baker also reminded his clergy that Holy Thursday is “the day on which we recall the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood.”
He suggested it might be best to distribute Holy Communion outdoors, during a specified time frame, “with people driving in their cars.” The bishop cautioned to respect the local rules on public gatherings, adding that priests “may want to have ushers assist in controlling the line and the flow of people. If you choose a drive-up option, I ask that you have people exit their vehicle before receiving.”
Baker also advised his priests to set up kneelers, and have a lamp burning.
He said it would be good for priests to offer “expanded hours for Confession on the days ahead, so that all may be properly disposed to receive Holy Communion.”
At the same time, Baker commended his priests for having found “appropriately creative ways the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick during this time, even as we all take the extra health precautions required to slow the pandemic.”
Baker emphasized that the reception of Holy Communion on the Thursday before Easter would be “a one-time event.” He also said it was only an “appeal,” not a mandate. “I understand that some of you have serious concerns about your own health, given underlying conditions or age,” he explained. Many priests in his diocese are liberal-leaning and elderly.
“I am concerned not only with the physical health of our people, but more importantly, with their spiritual health,” he concluded his letter.
By now, all dioceses within the United States have canceled public Masses. Often, access to other sacraments has also been restricted.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor Little Rock, Arkansas, had said giving the sacrament of anointing of the sick to people suffering from coronavirus “would be problematic.” The very exposure to them “would make you a danger to others.”
Instead, the bishop recommended leading “such persons in prayer for healing, maintaining a distance of at least 3 feet.”
Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama of Raleigh, North Carolina, prohibited Confessions, “except for those in danger of death.” His prohibition even included “the practice being observed of ‘stational penance’ via automobile ‘drive throughs.’”
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, led by Archbishop William Lori, has ordered all of its churches to be locked and instructed priests only to administer sacraments to the faithful if “the individual is in danger of dying.”
“No priests are to make themselves available to hear Confessions,” ordered Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, Texas. Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts has suspended all Last Rites.
However, the government decrees of individual states are not always to blame for some bishops’ draconian measures. In Ohio, for instance, churches are considered an essential business and allowed to stay open. Also, “religious gatherings” may continue.
The bishops within the state of Ohio, organized as the Catholic Conference of Ohio, had already decided on March 16 to cancel all public Masses and liturgies, “at least through the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter.”
On April 1, a great number of prominent and well-respected Catholics urged the bishops “to do everything you can to make the sacraments more available to us” during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship,” they pointed out.
Robert J. Baker has been bishop of Birmingham since 2007. Pope Francis accepted Baker’s resignation on March 25, which is the regular process for bishops aged 75. Before being called to Birmingham, Baker was bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, for roughly ten years.