“The important thing is to be with the people; we cannot say ‘everyone or no one’. Where there are only a few hospital beds or ventilators and many sick people, do we say ‘we must be fair, so no one gets treated’? Of course not. Like the loaves and the fishes, we share what little we have and trust the Lord to multiply it with His grace.”
Baldacchino also reiterated his opposition to the New Mexico governor’s decision to designate churches as “non-essential.”
“People are living in fear of death, of unemployment. They are sinking into despair. How much more essential could it be that we are with them, that we can feed the soul right now?” he asked.
“I was very inspired by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. He spoke about how drastic measures are not always good. He opened the churches of Rome – in a safe way, of course – and warned us that we must remain very close to the Lord’s flock at this time. We cannot wall ourselves off.”
CNA asked Baldacchino about the risks inherent in opening the churches, even to limited numbers, and to authorizing outdoor gatherings, even with social distancing guidelines in place.
“There is always a risk,” he said, “and we must do everything we can to guard against it. But this question of risk is always aimed at the Church. We do not ask it of other places,” he said.
“On Monday I went to the McDonalds drive through - a bit of a confession here. A very nice person took my credit card at one window, and a different person gave me my food at another – no masks, no gloves. Does anyone say we must close McDonalds because there is a risk? Or Walmart, or the gas station? Of course not. We accept there are certain essential things needed to live physically. So the risk of those places is never questioned, but more than five people in a church is a crime, too risky. Isn’t the soul the most important? We’ve gone a bit insane.”
“We have our priorities totally upside down,” he said. “Here in New Mexico, you can buy all the liquor you want, this is essential and worth the risks. You can buy marijuana, this is an essential service and the risks are tolerated. But the Eucharist – the summit of our Christian life, the sacrament of our salvation – this is not worth any risk, it’s too dangerous. We take risks to buy destructive things and call it essential while denying ourselves the true medicine. The BigMac and MillerLite, essential, the Body of Christ, not so much.”
CNA asked the bishop about the possibility that infection could be spread at an outdoor Mass, or that his guidelines could expose priests to added risk.
“There is risk, and we must do all we can to protect against it. We have been very clear: follow all the public health rules – all of them. If you are in an at-risk group, stay home.”
“But there is always some risk: there is risk at the supermarket, at the gas station, at the bank. But all of these places we keep open because we understand some things you simply cannot close down completely because there is a basic human need. Well, if food and money are basic human needs, even more so are the sacraments. It all boils down to whether or not you consider what the Church offers essential. Once you consider the Church essential, many of the ‘what if’s’ are no longer asked.”
“As for us as priests – and I say ‘us’ because I am the first priest of this diocese – we have to take care of ourselves and of our people. Use every precaution, understand the situation of the parish, respond to the needs of the people. I have lifted restrictions, I have not ordered any priest to do anything they think cannot work in their parish, and I have not recommended anything I am not first doing myself.”
In his letter to the priests of the diocese, Baldacchino, who was formed in the Neocatechumenal Way-affiliated Redemportis Mater missionary seminary in Newark and spent time as a missionary in the Caribbean, wrote that he had lost two close friends to the pandemic.
“We are all aware of the tragedy caused by the coronavirus, I myself have lost two close friends of mine, priests I studied and served with,” he wrote. “I am fully conscious of the death and sadness these days seem to bring.” But, the bishop told CNA, all suffering finds its meaning in the cross and resurrection of Christ which, he said, defines his own ministry as bishop.
“When I am asked how I cared for these people the Lord has entrusted to me, I want to be able to say I was with them, I was among them.”
In addition to lifting the restrictions on the public celebration of Mass, Baldacchino has also encouraged the priests of the diocese to ensure that the sacraments of confession and anointing are available, saying in his letter to priests that “the faithful are not to be deprived of this sacrament, especially when in danger of death.”
He told CNA that he has been hearing confessions regularly outside his own cathedral, behind a screen to observe social distancing.
“It is a time of great risk for all of us, physically and spiritually, but as priests we are called for these moments. Like doctors and nurses, who are very much at risk at this time, our place is with the sick.”
“Pope Francis speaks of the Church as a field hospital for the wounded and sick. Well there are many people sick at soul and wounded by despair at this time, and I want to erect as many tents to treat them as best we can.”