The light at the end of the tunnel

In the United States, a new normalcy is being perceived, mainly due to the massive vaccination programs. The Church's response has been tremendously supportive, and it is looking for ways for parishioners to return peacefully to the churches.   

Gonzalo Meza-February 23, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: Marlon Nartea/ Unsplash

In the United States, the light at the end of the tunnel is already visible. In mid-January 2021, the epidemiological curve began to decline in the United States. This has not happened since September. This is primarily attributed to the massive vaccination program that has been implemented (with its pros and cons).

The management for the research and manufacture of the vaccine were part of the strategy of former President Trump. This began in the spring of 2020 with Operation Warp Speed, coordinated by the federal executive and executed by the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies.

Under this program, financial support was provided for Covid-19 vaccine research and 300 million doses were expected to be available by early 2021. As of mid-February 2021, more than 50 million doses have been administered in the U.S. And the pace of vaccination continues to increase.

Two stimulus programs

Another fundamental part of this strategy implemented by the former US president, in conjunction with Congress, were two massive economic stimulus programs: on the one hand, the program of emergency economic assistance and medical care for families and businesses affected by the Coronavirus (CARES Act), approved in March 2020. On the other hand, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, passed in December 2020.

CARES is a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus which included $300 billion in the form of an economic stimulus for taxpayers. That translated into a $1,200 check that most U.S. citizens who filed their taxes the previous tax year received. The program also included a $350 billion fund (later increased to $669 billion) in the form of loans for businesses.

The second massive relief program was the Appropriations Act. This is a $2.3 trillion economic support bill, which combines $900 billion in economic stimulus for adult taxpayers and $1.4 trillion in government spending at all three levels of government. This program includes a second economic stimulus for taxpayers of $600. As with the first stimulus, this stimulus can be larger or smaller depending on several factors including income and the number of economic dependents. 

The generosity of the faithful

The pandemic also severely affected the finances of parishes, which depend on the generosity of parishioners. Some had to reduce their staff and cut expenses and eliminate projects. The economic blow was drastic but not as severe as in other countries, due to the assistance some parishes received from the federal government under CARES.

Governmental economic support has included companies and corporations, and for this reason many Christian denominations, including some Catholic dioceses, received funds aimed at avoiding massive layoffs in companies. In spite of the economic crisis that affected the Catholic Church in the United States, it never stopped serving the most vulnerable population.

During the pandemic, the Church mobilized to distribute a greater amount of food and resources to the disadvantaged and newly unemployed population because of COVID. This was done through its hundreds of relief centers run by Catholic Relief Services (part of Caritas) and charitable organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul. 

And what was the Church's response?

In the U.S., as in other countries, churches closed their doors. In some states, such as Georgia and Texas, the closure lasted only a few weeks. Subsequently, they reopened under strict sanitary measures and capacity limits. In other states, such as California or New York, places of worship remained closed for months, and although in those places some businesses considered "essential" were allowed to open (including liquor stores), churches were not allowed to do so and when they were allowed, the maximum limit imposed was absurdly reduced.

Two paradigmatic cases were observed in San Francisco, CA and Brooklyn, NY. Although the San Francisco Cathedral, St. Mary of the Assumption, has the capacity to easily accommodate up to 1,000 people (under sanitation and distancing protocols), the mayor of that city only allowed worship in the religious precincts up to 25% of its capacity and with a maximum limit of 25 people. This caused many Protestant Christian churches to express their disagreement and took the case to the Supreme Court of the Nation.

In defense of religious freedom

On February 5, 2021, the Court ruled to strike down the ban on conducting religious ceremonies inside places of worship in California. The Court found that the measures implemented by, among others, Governor Gavin Newson, violated the free exercise of religion, which is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. A similar case occurred in Brooklyn, NY.

In November 2020, the bishop of that diocese, Nicholas DiMarzio, protested because the state banned religious ceremonies that had more than 10 people (it could be up to 25 in large venues). In that case, too, the Supreme Court ruled against the restrictions imposed by the state of New York because such measures were deemed to constitute a violation of religious freedom. And so it returned in those ecclesiastical jurisdictions, the churches reopened their doors always following the indications and sanitary and distancing protocols.

With technology and ingenuity

Despite church closures, the Church used technology and ingenuity to bring God to every corner of the country. In this way, every house and dwelling could become a domestic church. Every parish, from the most remote place to the most important North American megalopolis, transmitted masses, rosaries, devotions and prayer groups on different platforms such as Youtube or Facebook. Many others made agreements with local radio or television stations to broadcast Sunday Mass. Catechism classes, faith formation classes, Bible classes and parish meetings were broadcast on Zoom or other platforms.

And while not ideal, it did serve as a temporary relief and a way to discover evangelization through technology. This time also saw the emergence of ingenuity and various initiatives. In some places, large parish parking lots became open-air churches, where stages and platforms with speakers were set up to attend Mass without getting out of the car. These altars were used not only for Mass but also for different devotions such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Towards the new normal

U.S. parishes will gradually return to what is the new normal. Although in most American dioceses, the bishops have maintained the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass since March 2020, some jurisdictions have already partially lifted it and have encouraged their parishioners to return to their parishes at least for Sunday Mass (as long as they are healthy adults who do not present serious risks of contagion).

Despite this, many are still reluctant to leave their homes. One of the tasks for the church here and elsewhere, once the pandemic is brought under control, will be to bring parishioners back to the parishes. Dispensations will not be perpetual and at the end of the day true divine worship and therefore the sacraments can only be physical, in person. 

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