[CP&S comment – How far many of our priests have fallen from the heroic priests of the British Isles during Penal Times! At a very real risk of capture, torture and death they put the importance of bringing Our Lord to their flock above anything else. They knew the value of the Sacrifice of the Mass, seemingly unlike today’s shepherds of souls.]
EDINBURGH, Scotland, January 7, 2021 — I think I broke a law yesterday.
There are Catholic Scots who are so frightened of the virus that they would rather nobody at all went to Mass, even though there is no evidence that anyone in Scotland has been infected at public Masses since they resumed in mid-July.
I’m not sure. Maybe I just violated a rule. Or failed to follow government advice. At any rate, I went to Epiphany Day Mass, thinking it would be my last opportunity to attend Mass in person for weeks. I had no idea that public worship had been suspended from 12:01 AM that morning, and I don’t think the priest did either.
Earlier this week, the First Minister announced that public worship in Scotland would not be permitted until February 2. I duly reported this, and when I saw news that the ban did not come into effect until Friday, January 8, I sent a correction to an editor.
By then an English Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, had written a letter to the First Minister pointing out that banning religious worship without evidence it was a threat to public health is a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Scottish Catholic bishops added their mild protest, worth quoting at length:
… [W]e are also perplexed by the decision, given that the stringent measures taken since last March to ensure public safety in our churches have been effective. No evidence has been forthcoming to justify the inclusion of places of worship as sources of infection. Without such scientific evidence these restrictions will appear to Catholics to be arbitrary and unfair. Moreover, significant number of other sectors similarly restricted last March alongside public worship – such as construction, manufacturing and elite sports – have now been left free to continue in operation.
We also note that, in England, the essential contribution of public worship to the spiritual welfare of all citizens during this crisis has now been endorsed by the decision not to close places of worship while the Scottish Government has apparently retreated from this view, causing dismay and confusion.
We are very aware of the disappointment these closures will cause not only to our own Catholic community, but to many of our fellow-Christians and those of other faiths in Scotland. We wish to emphasise again the spiritual, social and psychological benefits provided by continuing public worship, and we ask for these to be taken into full account in future decisions. Public worship is a human right and is a duty humanity owes to God. More concretely, Catholics need the Eucharist and the Sacramental encounter with the LORD as necessary to their spiritual wellbeing and their ultimate salvation.
While we unequivocally share the common goal of protecting public health, we urge the Scottish Government, when the present measures are reviewed later in January, to reconsider these restrictions in the light of the above concerns.
But instead of reconsidering, late on Tuesday night the Scottish Government moved up the ban on public worship to Wednesday, thus leaving Catholics at risk of a £60 fine for attending Epiphany Mass. I wonder if the Scottish government had only just learned that there was an Epiphany Mass, and that January 6 is usually a Holy Day of Obligation in Scotland, or that religious folk don’t restrict their public religious observances to the weekend. Naturally, I also wonder if this was their way of showing the Auld Kirk who is boss.
I must say, learning about the late-night date-switch made me very cross, and I hadn’t enjoyed a lengthy period of good mood to begin with. Sir Edward Leigh’s fraternal intervention—he is the President of the Catholic Union of Great Britain—was taken with ill grace by those Catholic Scots whose hatred for English “Tories” far outweighs their love for the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. I had been reading their thoughts, and the thoughts of other Catholic Scots who believe more in the efficacy of the lockdowns than in the unique virtues of public worship, with deep shame.
It’s all so cowardly. There are Catholic Scots who are so frightened of the virus that they would rather nobody at all went to Mass, even though there is no evidence that anyone in Scotland has been infected at public Masses since they resumed in mid-July. It would surely be strange if there was: for five months most church-going Catholics in Scotland assembled in well-ventilated churches built for 200 or more in groups of 40, masked, hands sanitized at the door, praying at least six feet apart from each household group, entering through one door, leaving through another. Some parishes even suffered from over-enthusiastic lay volunteers who hissed at suspected infractions, alienating Catholics who dislike being nannied at Mass. My community was more fortunate: we had just one mild-mannered (if large) young man to tick off names on the reservation list, give instructions, and watch the spy.
Oh yes, there was a spy. This unpleasant—or perhaps just disturbed—woman would come into the church to count our numbers and report to goodness knows whom. I am ashamed to say that she, too, is a Catholic, and her behavior was not something I expected in a country where Catholicism was brutally oppressed for 233 years and then marginalized for 200 more.
As of December 26, Scottish churchgoers were forced to halve our numbers to 20, and one priest I know coped with that by saying two short Masses in the same time it usually takes him to say one. He had already added a 5pm Mass. On that first Sunday Mass of 20, I kept looking over my shoulder to see if the spy had sneaked in to count.
It would be untrue to say that I never expected anything like this to happen in my lifetime. I received the sacrament of Confirmation before the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall, and while pondering what my new responsibilities might entail, I decided they included running the risk of being martyred by Communist invaders. Despite my ordinary 1980s Catholic education, I had read a lot about the martyrs, and I believed a martyr’s crown was worth any unpleasantness Mr Chernenko could devise. So, yes, it has occurred to me that a civil power might one day criminalize public worship.
What did not occur to me was that this could happen in a Western democracy, especially one that should be chastened by its long history of oppressing and marginalizing religious minorities. But an even worse surprise is that there are Catholics so frightened of dying in a few months of a respiratory illness (instead of in a few more years of cancer, heart failure, dementia or pneumonia) that they are firmly opposed to re-opening their churches to anyone, even when there is no evidence that public worship, carried out in the above-mentioned circumstances, spreads the disease. This terror seems strange in people who purport to believe in an eternity of bliss after death.
“Any risk, no matter how small, must be avoided” typed one of my fellow Catholics, apparently without shame. Had she forgotten all the Middle Eastern Christians who have regularly risked (and often lost) their lives to attend public worship during her lifetime? Had she forgotten what the martyrs of Soviet Communism were willing to risk for Christ? Does she think the underground Church in China is, in fact, just asking for it? And is she completely insensitive to the pain of fellow Scots in great distress because regular reception of the Eucharist is the only thing standing between them and mental collapse?
From 1613 until his arrest in 1614, St. John Ogilvie, a Jesuit priest, celebrated underground Masses for courageous Scottish Catholics. His flock were willing to risk prison, heavy fines, and the rack for the sake of attending Mass. The Catholic Relief Act came into effect in Scotland in 1793, sparing us from such punishments, although anti-Catholic prejudice carried on into the 20thcentury. What has happened since then to turn so many of us into cowards? And when will the bishops apply to the European Court of Human Rights?