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  1. Opinion

I’m a priest, but I don’t think we should pack the churches on Easter | Column

Open your hearts, but worship from home, urges an Episcopal priest.
Father Alex Padilla, Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, St. Petersburg, celebrates a mass in the Our Lady's Chapel next to the cathedral, March 20, 2020. The mass was live streamed and broadcast on the radio to parishioners. Public masses have been suspended by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg due to the Coronavirus outbreak. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

President Donald Trump has called for “packed churches … all over our country … on Easter!”

For centuries, Easter has been the culmination of a three-day remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this year, Trump is trying to turn it into a political rally. Open up the churches! Pack them with the elderly and the vulnerable! Have generations flee the safety of their homes to gather together to publicly observe this holiday. “It will be beautiful.” Unless, of course, those gathering in large families and/or houses of worship, where we are jammed around dinner tables or church pews, add to the community spread of the coronavirus.

How did we get here? For months we have slowly come to realize that a novel coronavirus (one never seen before) has been silently creeping around the world. It knows no borders or races or creeds -- or political parties. It will strike at will, mostly the old and infirm or those with underlying physical ailments and disabilities. But it will also strike people of all ages, as it does not discriminate.

Mary Anne Dorner FROM PRINT: MARY ANNE DORNER, Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Southwest Florida [Provided]

In Florida, we have been slow to acknowledge that COVID-19 is among us. If we did, we would have to turn away tourists and spring breakers who feed our economy. Smart business? Greed? Time will tell.

As of today, Florida is still not shut down completely. So many people are still out and about, flying and driving in and out of our state, with a “devil may care” attitude. “Devil” it may be.

Some, if not all, Christian churches have temporarily suspended Sunday worship services. Most have creatively figured out a way to present an online presence for their congregations. I applaud the many Christian clergy and denominations that have put the safety of their parishioners above their desire to continue on as if COVID-19 wasn’t in our midst.

In the midst of this epidemic, some clergy, including those in my Episcopal denomination. have tested positive for COVID-19. On March 8, the rector of a prominent Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., tested positive for the coronavirus. Immediately all worship services and programs at Christ Church in Georgetown were shut down. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington, whose Bishop Mariann Budde was a seminary classmate of mine, reluctantly pushed the pause button on worship services in that diocese. This was just the tip of the iceburg or head of the spear. Many others have now followed in their footsteps.

Following that first wake up call, many Roman Catholic and Episcopal dioceses have suspended public gatherings in houses of worship “in an abundance of caution” and to give their congregants permission to stay at home and observe online services from their churches or those around the country. Other Christian denominations have done the same. I personally know of Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran and United Church of Christ clergy and churches scrambling to going online. Also, many Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams have struggled with how to reach the faithful under their care without gathering for services.

As Floridians, we know how to “shelter in place.” We are pros at securing our “emergency supplies” and “hunkering down” while disasters hit our communities with full force.

This is a different kind of disaster, one we have never seen before. But we have been warned to take shelter, and must heed the warnings!

As the rector, the Rev Peter Walsh of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Conn., posted online today: “Dire times demand creative solutions.” Time for clergy and churches to be creative…to get out of our regular routines and be the church beyond the walls of our sanctuaries.

Epidemiologist Rob Garrett of Emory University posted today: Its time to “hold the line … and brace for impact.” I think churches need to hear his warning!

The time has come to choose who we will listen to and whose advice we trust.

Do we follow the “hunch” of President Trump and his desire for big rallies and church gatherings on Easter Sunday? Or do we follow the “advice” of scientists who have studied epidemiology who say that Easter is too soon to lift “social distancing measures” as a way to fight this pandemic?

We only have days to decide. I pray that we choose wisely.

Pope Francis has called upon Christians to celebrate Holy Week and Easter celebrations this year by NOT gathering for worship services this year. Many other Christian leaders are doing the same or still deliberating.

My advice. Stay home. Say your prayers. Attend services online. Save lives. Don’t “pack your church" but “open your hearts to the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus.” Peace be with you!

The Rev. Mary Anne Dorner is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Southwest Florida. She has served churches in the Tampa Bay area and South Florida since 1994.

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