Many Catholic parishes in New Mexico are struggling financially as social distancing requirements to stave off the COVID-19 virus have forced the closure of churches, Archbishop of Santa Fe John Wester told the Journal this week in a phone interview.
“It’s going to have a huge impact, and, of course, it will be different at different parishes,” he said. “Some parishes, especially in rural New Mexico, live Sunday-to-Sunday, basically. They depend on that constant (donation) income every week to make payroll and all the other things they need to do.”
Larger parishes have more of a buffer and the impact won’t be as dramatic, he said, “but all parishes will suffer.”
Calling himself “an optimist,” Wester said, “I believe that people of good will will donate through online giving or sending their envelopes in. … We are also asking people who are able, better situated people who are not laid off or worrying about paying the rent, if they could give even a little bit more than usual to help those who can’t at this time.”
The closings also extend to parish schools, although classes continue through livestreaming over the internet.
“Our schools have not declared that they’re closed for the rest of the school year,” Wester said. “We’re still waiting to see and hear what the governor and the doctors have to say. But right now, there is going to be an impact.”
Some of that impact is being felt by parents who have been laid off and are finding it difficult to pay tuition.
“We’re going to work with people, and I’ve let everybody know here in the archdiocese and the Catholic Center that we’re going to work with people,” he said.
That, however, does not mean providing families cash to pay their tuition.
The archdiocese is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, “so we’re not able to do much in that regard, but we can help by being lenient and deferring payment dates into the future when people get to working again,” he said.
Wester said the disappointments related to the coronavirus go beyond financial reasons and extend his “inability to celebrate with our people” during the Easter holy days, when he conducted Mass at an empty Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.
“Nevertheless, I’m grateful that we can connect with our people through livestreaming and other communications,” he said.
Despite the social distancing and financial toll, Wester said he was “very comfortable” with his March 12 decision to close archdiocese churches – even before it was mandated by the governor.
“It was really important for the well-being of our people, particularly because many of our churches and missions have a preponderance of elderly persons” who are at a greater risk of dying if they become infected with the coronavirus, he said.
“I have read that people are saying this is an infringement upon our rights, that the state has no right to tell the church what to do, that it’s a violation of the separation between church and state,” Wester said. “But that’s a red herring, and it’s not really what this is about. This has to do with science and viruses and how they operate.”
For the archbishop, science and religion are compatible.
“We have an axiom in the Catholic Church: ‘Grace builds on nature.’ So it’s not like nature and grace are opposed to each other, but they dovetail with each other. God is the creator, so we move with nature, we move with science. So clearly it was important to help people by social distancing.”
And it is science, or at least technology, that offers livestreaming over the internet and brings the church into people’s homes when they cannot go to church, he noted.
“But technology only goes so far. It brings Mass into the home, so you’re there with your family and the parish priest, or me at the cathedral. But it’s not like watching TV; it’s not like watching a rerun of ‘I Love Lucy.’ You have to take it, and in real time pray with it, and you listen to the word being proclaimed.
“Thank goodness we can stay at home and be safe and know that Christ is present to us there. Jesus said, ‘When two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.’ So my point is, relish and give thanks for the way Christ is present, and be grateful for what we have.”
As for the archbishop’s own well-being: “I’m doing fine, thanks be to God. I’m grateful for my health and taking all the precautions that we’re advised to do. Basically, I’m just kind of hunkering down like everybody else, and I’m doing OK, actually.”
He recognizes, of course, that not everybody is OK, and that the number of COVID-19 infections continues to rise.
“I am praying earnestly for them, and I’m very encouraged by the courageous people helping us – the doctors and nurses and grocers and distribution people.”
And Wester said he wants everyone to know: “The Catholic church is still open. We’re still the people of God, whether we’re in the church together or out in the fields or wherever we are, we’re a people, and we’re praying for each other, and the Holy Spirit is holding us together.”