How Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly wrestled with the moral dilemma of canceling Mass for coronavirus

How Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly wrestled with the moral dilemma of canceling Mass for coronavirus
Daniel Walters photo
Bishop Thomas Daly hopes that the Catholic Church will play an important role in providing aid to the sick and the poor as the coronavirus spreads.
This is hardly the first time the Catholic Church has to deal with a plague.

Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly knows that well.

Lately, he's found himself thinking about Charles Borromeo, the saint who spent his last days in Italy during the plague in Milan in 1576, driving himself deep into debt as he tried to feed tens of thousands in famine, staying in the midst of the sickness even as other leaders had fled.

"The church has been through plagues and epidemics and outbreaks for centuries," Daly says.

But he's also well aware of the fact that many of the church's most powerful benefits during a normal natural disaster — the ability to bring people together into one spot, to give them aid, giving them community — carries the danger of spreading the coronavirus.

And so when it came to questions like, "do you cancel Mass?" Daly faced a moral dilemma with no easy answers. On one hand, Daly says, there was the "the reality of so much unknown and the fact that people were dying."

On the other hand, there was the obligation the Catholic Church has for "caring for people and not running from them and abandoning them."

Part of the mission of the church, he says, is to "remain, to say to the people, we will do all we can to help you."

For devout-Catholics, the weekly Holy Mass isn't an optional engagement. It's not something you miss because the Seahawks are on or because you partied too hard the night before. It's a literal command in the catechism — those who miss Mass without permission or a good reason, like illness or caring for an infant, "commit a grave sin."

“Mass is not just a social gathering," Daly says. He stresses that Catholics believe that the bread and wine during communion become the bread and body of Christ. It's not a metaphor — it's a miracle.

"There's spiritual nourishment that comes from the bread of life," Daly says. Martyrs have died for that reason, he says, 

So initially, as the diocese in Seattle and Yakima canceled their masses, Bishop Daly didn't follow suit. Daly's an old-school Catholic, the sort who's decried church leaders who bend too quickly to fit in with the rest of society. And that same instinct was at play as he wrestled with whether to cancel Mass on Sunday.

"I talked to a bishop in California, who's had a similar experience," Daly says. "He kind of looked at the priests who are wanting to, you know, 'cut and run,' and he found them to be basically, guys who that's their approach to a number of things. Kind of a more selfish approach."

Last Friday, Daly sent out a message, giving those who were 60 years old or over permission to not attend the Sunday Mass service, and reminding those who are sick and caring for the sick they did not have to attend. But for the rest? The command to attend Mass remained.

"I tried to take a cautious approach, knowing that people were telling me that, 'We need prayer,' in addition to medical things," Daly says. "I want to make sure we are there for people, who are experiencing additional hardships, because of isolation, being away from family, fear."

And initially, Daly says, he was flooded with praise and thank yous, telling him things like, "'We feel that we can take proper precautions, but don't cut off the sacraments from us.'"

But a mere two days later, the landscape had already changed. He was on the board of the seminary in Menlo Park in California, where the rector, after consulting with two intelligent medical doctors who'd recommended canceling services, warned about hospitals being overwhelmed.

"I think that was the moment when I had to say, you know, for the good of the people we're going to end the public masses," Daly says.

Sunday morning the announcement went out: Pray at home. But Mass was canceled until April 6.

In a video to parishioners he stressed that this "may be the strangest and most difficult Lenten season we will ever see."

He's still asked that the churches remain open, so parishioners can still come to pray if they need to. Priests would still offer private masses daily, who would live-stream them on the diocese's website.

He's stressed that people need to look out for people who rely on the church community, to continue to call and check on elderly parishioners. Daly notes the long, long history of the Catholic Church locally providing charity for the sick and impoverished, and wants to continue that. But that mission quickly gets tricky.

"I just responded to questions from one of the younger priests: "What do we do if they request anointing?" Daly says, referring to the sacrament of anointing a sick person's hands and foreheads and oil." 'Well, you make sure you have a glove and a mask.' There's ways that you can do that."

But the challenges keep increasing.

"I'm worried about our schools closing, our schools that have some financial challenges to begin with," Daly says. "There's not a school that we have that is wealthy."

Even Our Lady of Lourdes in France, the renowned Cathedral that Spokane's church is named after, closed on Wednesday. To Daly, who's taken 16 or 17 pilgrimages to the location, who's worked with the sick in the baths, that's a sign of just how serious this is.

Lourdes has never closed in its history.

In a way, Daly says, being not allowed to attend church is a small taste of the sort of persecution that Catholics in some other countries have experienced.

"One priest told me, 'It must be like an occupied country where, you know, where the occupation force is this disease,'" Daly says. Maybe, he says, this will shake some Catholics from their "complacency."

And, if nothing else, Daly can rely on the basics: fasting and prayer and hope that God provides a miracle.

"The faithful are encouraged to join me in a voluntary fast on Fridays with the intention of ending this tragic pandemic," Daly says in his video message. "People, especially the sick and distressed, need God in this time."