Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
For the last 30 years, Father Vincent Paul Chávez has spent nearly every Sunday celebrating Mass and mingling with parishioners.
But this Sunday, the doors to St. Therese Catholic Church on Fourth Street were locked, as were the doors of many churches in New Mexico, after Archbishop John C. Wester directed that public Masses be suspended immediately.
The extraordinary move came in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and throughout the world.
“Every day, people all over the world deal with natural disasters, personal tragedies, warfare, etc.,” Chávez said. “This is the first time in my charmed life that I’ve ever experienced this sort of international crisis, and it’s scary, actually.”
The decision to halt Masses in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe – the largest diocese in New Mexico – comes as Catholics observe Lent, one of the holiest times on their calendar.
Across the globe, the Vatican said the public wouldn’t be allowed into the pope’s Easter services, which appears to be unprecedented in modern times.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, visited two shrines in Rome on Sunday to pray for the pandemic to end. Francis left the Vatican unannounced, Reuters reported, and went to St. Marcello church to pray before a crucifix used in a procession when the plague hit Rome in 1522.
Chávez said that, while church services were also suspended in the Middle Ages due to the great plagues, he thinks this is the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that many churches have actually closed their doors.
Wester announced his decision to halt church services Thursday night.
“As a Christian, Thursday night, I went to sleep with a sense of a little bit of fright and a sense of needing not to be alone in frightening circumstances,” Chávez said. Soon after, though, he was comforted by his faith.
Chávez supports Wester’s decision, noting that the archbishop was heeding advice from state and local officials who are trying to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, he said, “it’s weird” to not be celebrating Mass on Sunday. While several parishes are streaming Mass online, Chávez said his parish doesn’t have the technology to do that.
“This weekend, at all the Masses, we would have given a big shout out to the Valley High School boys basketball team,” which won a state championship on Saturday, he said.
But “every challenge in life is also an opportunity,” he later added.
Among the challenges that Chávez and other parish priests will likely have to overcome is diminished revenue.
“We live from Sunday collection to Sunday collection, so in that sense, we’re going to be in solidarity with so many people that live from paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
While the Archdiocese of Santa Fe canceled church services, others moved forward with theirs, including the Dioceses of Gallup and Las Cruces.
Legacy Church on West Central also held services. Hand sanitizer was made available at the door. While many attended, an Albuquerque Police Department officer said the crowd was lighter than usual.
In the South Valley on Sunday, Ann and Brian Shields, a Minneapolis couple here for the winter, were standing outside of Holy Family Catholic Church off Atrisco.
Brian Shields said he and his wife decided to stop by the church before going for a wilderness hike, but they found the doors locked.
“I believe that God is with us in nature and everywhere, but to sit in the sanctuary and pray in the house of God, I think is special,” Ann Shields said. “So I just thought, even if there isn’t Mass it would be comforting to come in and pray inside, read the Scripture.”
Father Graham Golden of Holy Rosary Catholic Church broadcast his Sunday Mass via the internet. During his sermon he acknowledged that “right now in our world we’re facing a great deal of uncertainty, a great deal of pain, of brokenness, of suffering, of illness.”
In a separate YouTube video, he asked parishioners to “please understand that the decision to suspend public celebration of the Mass was not taken lightly. It is not a statement of our fear or of retreat. … We are refraining from public gatherings in order to protect and promote the health and the wellbeing of the most vulnerable populations, the elderly and those who are already struggling with compromised immune systems.”
At St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Rio Rancho, Monsignor Doug Raun in a parish memo issued Saturday said his daily Mass would be streamed on YouTube. He also said St. Thomas would remain open for prayer 24 hours a day. Adoration of the Eucharist has been moved to the main church to allow people to spread out, he said.
“Our parish staff is working very hard to keep the church disinfected,” Raun said in the memo.
Raun said one of the more difficult issues he’s had to deal with in recent days was telling three families that funeral Masses scheduled for their loved ones before the ban went into effect would have to be canceled. Burials and graveside services are being held, and funeral Masses will be held when the ban is lifted, he said.
“It was so hard for me to tell them that we could not have the Masses until later,” Raun said in his memo. “All three families were so understanding and kind about it.”
Raun is planning to continue to hear confessions, although they won’t be face to face, and he is asking people to stand 6 feet apart in line, to not kneel or stand during confession, to “do your best to not touch anything” and to wipe the confessional door handle with the disinfectant that will be provided.
“Without hindering anyone’s freedom to approach the Sacrament, may I suggest that those who wish to make only a confession of devotion – that is, only venial sins – can content themselves with a good act of contrition, leaving the time for those who need to go to confession,” Raun wrote. “I think that would be a great act of charity and very pleasing to the lord.”
Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis contributed to this report.