On Friday evening, news came that Masses in all three of Colorado’s Catholic dioceses were canceled in accordance with Gov. Jared Polis’s guidance to curb large social gatherings amid the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus.
Two days later, locked doors and signs on windows greeted would-be parishioners at multiple locations throughout Denver. At the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Colfax Avenue, bells tolled at 11 a.m. Sunday morning, but only a half dozen people were seated on the pews inside.
“Is it closed down?” asked Gilbert Hernandez, walking up to the front entrance. Taped on each door was a sign advising that the cathedral would be open for private prayer, and confession would still be available. However, in capital letters was the disclaimer to stay at least six feet away from other parishioners: “PLEASE DO NOT SIT OR STAND CLOSE TO OTHER PEOPLE.”
The cancellation “does affect me a little bit because I cannot say my prayers,” said Hernandez, who comes to the Cathedral roughly every other week.
On March 13, the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment recommended against gatherings of 250 or more people, including “social, spiritual and recreational activities.” Known as “flattening the curve,” the goal is to reduce the chances of person-to-person transmission of the virus and lower the number of overall cases. On Sunday night, the department reduced the threshold even further, recommending postponement of events with just 50 or more people.
“At this time, we have determined that it is our responsibility to do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said a statement from the bishops of Colorado Springs and Pueblo and the Archbishop of Denver on Friday. Reaction from Catholics was varied.
Kyle Ehrenzeller of Castle Rock pointed to a centuries-long history of persecution and plagues through which the Catholic Church survived.
“For Mass to suddenly be canceled for a far less deadly virus, I see this a great departure from the church's teaching on spiritual well-being being more important than physical well-being,” he said. Ehrenzeller did not believe that the alternative, online broadcast of Mass, was sufficient.
“The Eucharist is the center of the Mass and the highlight,” he said. “I hope this virus is contained as soon as possible but I hope the decision to suspend Mass is reversed immediately.”
Coping with the change
Others were empathetic toward the bishops’ decision.
“I’m a Navy guy,” said Rick Cordova upon leaving the Denver Cathedral after saying his own prayers. He had been attending for eight years. “War is war, and this is a war.”
He added, “Apparently this guy in charge should have been on this three weeks earlier,” referring to President Donald Trump.
As Cordova stood outside, Mark Williams pulled up on a bicycle, an American flag bandanna affixed to his hat. Cordova told Williams that he would have to pray on his own. “You’ll be all right,” he said.
“No, it’s not,” Williams responded with a look of pain. “That big body of the church overrides the governor. He’s thinking of what to do out of a fear of the coronavirus. If we come to church and have our Mass, people will be healed.”
Williams felt that the uncertainty of the coronavirus provided a greater incentive to hear a sermon. “We can’t make up the Sabbath day, bro,” he said.
Christian denominations were not the only entities with altered operations. Temple Emanuel in Denver canceled a slate of worship, parenting and yoga classes. The Denver Islamic Society cautioned worshipers that sermons would be 15 minutes long and they should bring their own hand sanitizer.
The Rev. Scott A. Bailey, pastor of Risen Christ Catholic Parish, normally would have seen 1,800 people during his weekend Masses. He uses an online system called Flocknote to communicate with most of his congregation, and is scheduling more appointments over video chat.
Historically, he has only conducted virtual meetings once or twice per month. “I have really only used it when distance is an issue,” he said. “Technology doesn't beat the personal connection of talking and praying with a person face-to-face.” But now, he continued, those online tools are vital.
For the Rev. Ronald Patrick Raab of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs, the canceled service was gradual, and extended beyond worship. Beginning on Thursday, he halted all events where food was offered, including the food pantry. Then on Friday, the bishop of Colorado Springs gave the cancellation order. This was the first time in his 37 years of ministry that Mass ceased altogether — including during the AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s.
“In the beginning days of HIV/AIDS, there was also much fear,” he recalled. “The fear was far less public. People were not sure who was contracting the disease and the hidden fear revolved around sexuality and the fear that everyone who contracted the disease certainly died.”
He said there was a “hushed quiet,” and even clergy were afraid to enter hospital rooms of those who contracted the disease. Dispelling those fears took years.
Understanding the severity
Records from the Denver Catholic Register indicate a patchwork of cancellations occurred more than 100 years ago, during the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918 and killed 675,000 Americans.
“The health authorities have given their permission for outdoor Sunday services in Denver, but it will not be possible to celebrate Mass, Bishop [John Henry] Tihen having informed pastors who sought this permission that he could not grant such faculties,” read the archdiocese’s newspaper on Oct. 10, 1918, noting 479 cases of the flu in Denver. “If the priests wish, however, they will be permitted to gather their people together for other services outdoors. It is not likely that any will be held.”
Anna Maria Basquez, the founder of Denver Catholic Speed Dating who attended Mass daily until this week, believes that Colorado’s bishops made the right decision, as did Trump in calling for a day or prayer.
“He’s in tune with the faithful,” she said of the president. “He let it be on a state-by-state basis that governors decide. Which is good, when he could have either said, ‘no, you can’t stop their Masses’ or he could have said, ‘you have to stop all Masses.’”
Basquez remembered feeling “physically ill” when she realized she could not receive the Eucharist. She said it strengthens her life and believes that without it, many Catholics are going through the stages of grief.
However, she closely followed the developments in Italy, with 368 reported deaths in just 24 hours over the weekend. So far in Colorado, there have been 131 positive cases and one death as of Sunday afternoon.
“I would have been happy for our religious leaders to have asked the governor not to stop Masses,” she said. Upon further reflection, she realized, “the Roman Catholic authorities of our state too realized the severity.”