A woman who produced a video appealing to Catholic bishops to re-open churches has revealed that one bishop admitted to being “ashamed” for having to instruct the closure of churches and another insisted that they are in contact with the Government and will press for re-openings “at the earliest opportunity”.
The video, titled ‘Please Open Our Churches’ was sent via email to all British Catholic bishops last month and is also available to view on YouTube. It begins with a young woman addressing the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland acknowledging that this is “a difficult time for you, as it is for all of us”, before a group of children exclaim: “We are praying for you”.
The two-minute video includes pleas from a number of Catholics to re-open churches so that the faithful can once again “physical be with Jesus” through the Blessed Sacrament.
One woman quotes Pope Francis, warning that “the forced isolation is presenting the danger of people living the faith only for themselves detached from the sacraments, the Church and the people of God”. Another woman asks that “if we cannot receive Communion then help us to be with Jesus in the church”, while one man notes that “online Masses and spiritual communion do not represent the church” and another promises that social distancing measures will be maintained. Contributors to the video assure that pews will be disinfected, rotas put in place and parish priests will not be burdened with extra work. They also appeal for safe, socially-distanced Confessions.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, who produced the film with Ben and Sarah Thatcher, told The Catholic Universe that they had received “a dozen or more responses” after the video was sent to every Catholic bishop in the UK.
“One bishop responded by saying: ‘I was ashamed to give the instruction for our churches to be closed and deny the faithful access to the Blessed Sacrament’,” she said.
“Another replied with: ‘Thank you for making this poignant video appeal for churches to be re-opened. It breaks my heart that churches are closed and public acts of worship are suspended. We are in touch with Government, and we will press for our churches to be re-opened at the earliest opportunity’.”
Ms Vaughan-Spruce said it sometimes takes a crisis to make people evaluate their priorities and during the pandemic she also became aware of other people’s priorities too.
“When the announcement of church closures happened I was aware of a sense of frustration and helplessness amongst some of my Catholic friends, others even felt angry. I wanted to help channel that anger into something productive, so together with my friends Ben and Sarah Thatcher we decided to create a video. The video wasn’t borne out of self-pity as some have suggested, but rather from a deep yearning for the sacraments, of which many felt they were unnecessarily being deprived, and a desire to be in the Real Presence of Jesus.”
Ms Vaughan-Spruce also pointed out that the video wasn’t simply a plea for the laity but for priests too.
“I know of priests who are no longer celebrating even a private Mass because they feel so detached from the Church. It reminds me that priests need the people almost as much as we need our priests. A few priests have continued hearing Confessions albeit discretely and sometimes without their bishop’s knowledge, saying their first duty is obedience to God and that they consider hearing Confessions akin to administering first aid as Jesus is the Divine Physician.”
Ms Vaughan-Spruce pointed out that she was “disturbed” at the amount of people who were “reminding” her that “God is everywhere” or how an individual can “make your house into a church”.
“Whilst of course my relationship with God continues no matter where I am, this can become a Protestant way of thinking and devalue the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist which clearly I don’t have in my home,” she said.
Noting that she also has friends who struggle with habitual sin, Ms Vaughan-Spruce acknowledged that the lockdown presents a particular challenge to them with little to do and everyone encouraging them to go online.
“Porn channels are offering free subscriptions to capitalise on the lockdown and yet they can’t find a priest to hear their Confession,” she said.
As well as the responses she’d received from bishops, she explained that the video had also prompted the Bishop of Lancaster, Paul Swarbrick, to write a blog in which he pointed out that part of the Government’s current mantra is to ‘save lives’.
‘Across government and society generally we have seen commendable sensitivity and empathy towards those directly and indirectly affected,’ wrote Bishop Swarbrick. ‘May such sensitivity grow to embrace a broader section of our communities, even more vulnerable, and being lost in much greater numbers. I am talking of those who are killed through the scandal of abortion.
‘Since the 1967 Abortion Act they number almost 10,000,000,’ he continued. ‘That is an average of 200,000 every year. Let us encourage a sense of proportion. Let us acknowledge this particular threat that continues to cause so many tragic deaths; no-one there to hold their little hand as they are dying, no funeral allowed, no one to grieve for an innocent life lost.’
Ms Vaughan-Spruce is the co-director of March for Life UK and while noting that the ‘Please Open Our Churches’ video is not a project by the group but one by Catholics, she said: “I regularly pray outside an abortion centre and it saddens me deeply that the abortion providers insisted that their business was essential, and this was accepted.”
She also pointed out that her local alcohol store never closed either yet “cathedrals that could hold 1,000 people aren’t even allowing six at a time inside”.
“We aren’t suggesting that our faith will somehow eradicate the virus but that there is no more risk posed through a few people going into a church, that can be disinfected between people and distancing kept, than there is in a B&Q store,” she said, citing the fact that a large number of B&Q stores were re-opened to the public at the end of April.
Ms Vaughan-Spruce said there was no shortage of volunteers willing to take part in the ‘Please Open Our Churches’ video.
Rachel MacKenzie who runs ‘Rachel’s Vineyard’ post-abortion support in the Midlands was keen to be part of it and repeat Pope Francis’ words: ‘Forced isolation is presenting the danger of people living the faith only for themselves, detached from the sacraments, the Church and the people of God’.
Concerned about friends who said they preferred online Mass, Ms MacKenzie was worried about the long term effect of people being able to tune into a Mass from the comfort of their living-room at a time to suit themselves and with the priest of their choice. “We are people of habit and it’s the bad habits that stick the easiest,” she said.
Ms Vaughan-Spruce added: “This pandemic has brought a lot to the surface and one wonders how it will be recorded in future annals? Will the laity be remembered for asking the Church to ‘hold the line’ and to continue to keep their doors locked? Will the Church be remembered for capitulating where abortion centres stood firm?”
A spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales told The Catholic Universe: “The feelings and desires that are expressed in this video are completely understandable. However, there are other factors that need to be considered: we have a moral duty to protect life; we have a duty to heed the best professional advice about the dangers of this virus which is invisible and deadly; we have to be sure that whatever steps we may take – and some are proposed in the video – are well thought through, receive formal approval and are deliverable in every situation.
“Being deprived of sacraments and being unable to enter our churches is a heavy deprivation. Yet we must be clear why it is necessary at this time.
“When restrictions are eased, we must be ready to act with full responsibility, under public scrutiny and always with an eye for the common good of the society of which we are a part.”
Picture: A statue of Mary is seen next to the locked entrance to a Catholic church during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Belvedere Alejandro, Latin America News Agency via Reuters).