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The Church is a lighthouse in the severest of storms —or pandemics

Cardinal Rigali puts the coronavirus in context as he reflects on challenges in Catholic history           

By Dan McWilliams

Cardinal Justin Rigali has seen a little of everything in his nearly 59 years as a priest and nearly 85 years of life. He was on the ground floor as a young priest assisting during the early days of Vatican II. As an older bishop and later as a cardinal, he has lived through the horrible abuse scandals that have rocked the Church.

But nothing, to him, tops what is going on presently, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Church to suspend Masses, even those of Holy Week, and halt virtually all other operations.

“The Church has been through a lot of difficult times, but I don’t think anybody can remember anything like this, where it affects the whole world but it affects the whole Church, and it affects it in a major way,” Cardinal Rigali said. “The Church has been affected now from even how to organize its life, its worship, to organize what the Church must do. I think it’s very clear that we’ve never been through a situation like this.”

The cardinal believes there is a need for wisdom nowadays as the pandemic has created havoc in all walks of life.

“The Church is constantly facing very difficult problems, and even people of good will can have different opinions on ‘What is it we’re supposed to do?’” he said. Scripture highlights an important decision by the early Church that has parallels to today’s situation, Cardinal Rigali said.

“In the Acts of the Apostles we have a very, very important case. It’s the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles where there was a big problem then about how the Church should confront some of the challenges of the first days, and specifically, what were the new Christians obliged to do,” he said. “Did they have to do everything that was done in the old way? Was there circumcision? Were they bound by that? Were they bound by other requirements? Was it limited? All of this came up in the Council of Jerusalem.

“Even there, there were difficulties. There were different opinions. They discussed it. Then the Apostles wrote a letter to the assembly in Antioch. They said, ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.’ The leaders of the Church had to take a stand. That is what is described in the 15th chapter, the 28th verse, of the Acts of the Apostles.”

The cardinal re-emphasized the difficulty and the need for wisdom.

“But also, it wasn’t also clear that there hadn’t been a doubt raised. So then finally, the Apostles said it has been decided by the Holy Spirit and us. They claimed the assistance of the Holy Spirit. They made difficult decisions, decisions that weren’t pleasing to everybody. They had the responsibility. I think we see that in the present day here. It’s a very difficult moment. But I know that the Apostles then and the bishops now, nobody claims that the bishops are infallible, but they do claim to have the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in their leadership they are the authentic leaders. It’s a new moment.”

In that new moment, the Church has had to “come together,” Cardinal Rigali said.

“This is another aspect of a very difficult question: how do we confront this? In confronting it, we have other difficult questions, so the bishops, they have to realize that they’re responsible; they have to be responsible for the people whom they serve and lead. It is obvious that from all the opinions that are given on how this (coronavirus) spreads, the spiritual leaders have to take this into account. They can’t say they’re not going to follow very important recommendations. We’re very, very sorry to see this, about the elimination of Mass now in public, etc. But at once the only possibility we have is to come together as leaders in the Church, take a stand, and just do the best we possibly can.”

The leaders in the Church “are responsible,” the cardinal said, “and we have to do the very best we can in making sure that people understand that we’re not in any way saying that the eucharistic worship is not important or that it can be set aside for any reason whatsoever, no, but this is an extraordinary thing. There has to be somebody to make the decision. The Apostles said, ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to decide these things.’ We think that the Lord wants us to take these measures, even though they’re very drastic measures.”

Cardinal Rigali called the suspension of Holy Week services “a tremendous loss.”

“However, once again this is done for a specific purpose, and it is done in the way in which it is supposed to be done by the people who have the authority to do it,” he said. “At the same time it’s not that we are neglecting Holy Week. We’re doing the best we can this year where we realize that Holy Week is a very special celebration of the Paschal Mystery of the Lord. It’s not been done to my knowledge before, and it would never be done except for a very difficult situation that the world is confronting. However, the people will have to pray.

“Even if they’re not able to have a celebration in the community, which is extremely important, it would take an extraordinary reason to prevent such a thing. But it’s been judged that we have that. I hope that this will end and that we will have Masses. Every Mass is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Holy Week is very special, but so are the Masses that we celebrate every single day.

“At this moment in the life of the Church we also have such wonderful things as technology that is able to bring us so much by way of television, etc. This gives us other opportunities to participate. It’s not the same thing—no, not at all, but it’s the best we can do. It can increase our devotion because we know that we have to unite ourselves spiritually with the Lord.”

To put today’s situation in the perspective of Church teaching, the cardinal again hearkened back to Acts 15:28.

“It shows how beautifully established the Church was and how Jesus had given the Apostles the authority to teach and the authority to make decisions and the authority to judge, even when it was difficult,” he said. “We see in the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles how the Apostles exercised this in the face of a very big question, a very big and troublesome question about various things; circumcision was one of them. How was the Church supposed to react, because it wasn’t the synagogue anymore; it was the Church. That’s when we have the teaching of the Apostles, how important it was that they follow the teaching of Jesus.

“In the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, in the 28th verse, it says, ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.’ And then they enumerate the necessities: namely, to abstain from meat sacrifice to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right, and then they say farewell.”

Challenges for the Church did not stop there, in those early days, Cardinal Rigali said.

“Now, other problems, serious problems, some of them maybe more important than these, have come up over the centuries,” he said. “The Church, with the authority given to her and with the grace of the Holy Spirit, has been able to face these and been able say, ‘Yes, we must do these things’ or ‘No, this is not necessary.’ As a result of this particular case, the new Christians were not obliged to do everything that was done in the Old Testament. No, no, no, no. It was a new moment, and the Apostles emphasized how much the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ was important.

“By all means they would observe many things in the Old Testament, many things of prayer, etc., but it was a new time. Jesus Christ had come upon the scene. Jesus Christ had established a new covenant. The Lord Jesus was the high priest of the new covenant.”

The cardinal is certainly in support of his friend and fellow housemate, Bishop Richard F. Stika, in the tough decisions the bishop has had to make as the Diocese of Knoxville’s shepherd in recent days.

“I certainly do support him. It is a very, very difficult [time] . . . The bishops also have other bishops who are helping them to see clearly the issues and make sure they don’t overlook something.”

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