We've Done This Before - Cancelling Mass for Outbreaks, A History

Tuesday, March 10, 2020



Viral outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics have happened throughout human history. Some require different responses to see to the end. The Catholic Church, being a 2000+ year old institution, has seen quite a few.
I've heard many Catholics, and priests, calling the closure of churches and shutting of public masses to be "unprecedented." Au contraire! There is in fact historical precedent for closing churches and avoiding large gatherings during illness outbreaks. There is also historical precedent for what happens when we decide to not follow the advice of health authorities in regards to churches.

I love me a good history tour, so join this one: cancelling mass for outbreaks, a history.

1918 Pandemic Flu

The pandemic flu of 1918-1919 is the most recent example of the scale of global impact that we are seeing develop with COVID-19.

 From Baltimore, MD: "The city’s leading Catholic clergyman continued to question why local churches were closed “while the stores, saloons, markets and the like remain open.” While recognizing public health concerns, James Cardinal Gibbons argued that “it would be a much-needed relief to our church-going population if they could be allowed to attend brief morning services… I am told that a number of calls upon our physicians are simply the result of nervousness, or the consequence of alarm. This might be considerably allayed by the reassurance of religion, and discreet words from our priests given the people in church.”
This quote is from October 15, 1918, yet is almost identical to statements I have seen shared on social media in the past few weeks.

In the Fall of 1918 awareness of the virus was high, but acceptance of the need for social distancing was not.

In Spain we see what happens when Catholic leaders and faithful refuse to comply with local health authorities. "Because of a strong social influence of the Bishop, the Catholic Church authorities in Zamora [Spain] stated that “the evil upon us might be a consequence of our sins and lack of gratitude, and therefore the vengeance of eternal justice felt upon us” [19, p. 149] and, subsequently, organized a series of Mass gatherings at Zamora's Cathedral. One of the likely consequences of the events was the easy spread of the virus. The attempts of civil authorities to forbid Mass gatherings were disputed by the Bishop, who accused the political and public health authorities of undue interference with the church."
Zamora had the highest death toll from the pandemic flu in all of Spain, due in no small part to the refusal to accept social distancing measures. Zamora had a peak death rate of 10.1% in October 1918. Mortality in all of Spain in the same month? 3.8%
Those mass gatherings to pray the virus away? They were held in October 1918.

On October 12, 1918 Rochester, NY announced the closure of all churches, including public masses. This is after steps such as cancelling confirmations and other public devotions. The bishop put a statement in the newspaper encouraging the faithful to follow the direction of the health authorities, act prudently, and to pray in communion with the Church at home.
Rochester would fare much better than other comparable cities in the area. It's excess death rate was 360 per 100,000 residents - putting it just about equal with St. Louis, MO. Both cities are now held up as examples of how many lives can be saved with the early adoption of social distancing measures.

A More Recent Example

1918 too far back for you? How about May of 2018. That was when an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo led to a ban on most sacraments.  No baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, or anointings until further notice. By September thousands of churches were closed in the hardest hit regions. Communion in the hand only, if you are lucky enough to be able to receive it. The DRC is a very Catholic country, with some 650,000 of the region's 1.2 million residents are Catholic in the Ebola effected regions. That means about 650,000 Catholics have already been living without access to the sacraments for over 19 months straight due to a virus.

Did you know that outbreak just officially saw an end in sight only last week? The discharge of the last Ebola patient, and a lack of new cases in two weeks, means the outbreak might finally be over. For now.

Adds a little perspective, doesn't it?


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