Bishop Joseph Strickland on the COVID-19 pandemic, resuming public Masses

“People have the impression that we priests are mere bachelors, living a simple life, doing our own thing. But we want to be with our families, which is our parish communities. It hit us hard not to be gathering with you.”

By Jim Graves, Catholic World, May 15, 2020

Bishop Joseph Strickland, 61, is Bishop of Tyler Texas. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Dallas in 1985, and was named Bishop of Tyler in 2012. Despite being from a relatively small diocese, he is a high visibility bishop who is active on social media, maintaining a website and blog, and using a Twitter account that has 31,000 followers.

Tyler is located in the northeast corner of Texas, and is home to 68 Catholic parishes, 80 priests and 120,000 Catholics. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop Strickland suspended public Masses and public devotions in his diocese on March 18, 2020, and also placed restrictions on the reception of the sacraments other than the Eucharist. The sacrament of Penance, for example, could be offered, but “proper social distancing should be observed as much as possible.” Funerals may be held, yet with limited numbers of asymptomatic immediate family members.

On April 1, he offered an update, which noted, “Because we must continue to remain isolated and do our part to slow the spread of this terrible disease, and following the guidelines and orders from our local, state, and national leaders, the measures taken in the March 17 decree remain in effect until further notice.” On May 1, he allowed the public celebration of the Mass to resume, “provided that health protocols and other measures are observed in order to protect the vulnerable and mitigate the risk of resurgence in our communities.”

He noted, however, that the faithful still were dispensed of their Sunday obligation to attend Mass. A variety of restrictions remain in place, such as six-foot distancing between households, the sanitizing of hands and common surfaces, no contact during the Sign of Peace and no social gatherings after Mass. The wearing of masks is encouraged, as is Communion in the hand.

Related to the pandemic, Bishop Strickland also made the news on May 8, 2020, when he became the only U.S. bishop currently heading a diocese to sign an Appeal for the Church and the World, an expression of concern that governments might use COVID-19 to manipulate the public in harmful ways and a condemnation of the use of aborted fetuses in any COVID-19 vaccines.

CWR recently talked with Bishop Stickland about these topics and more.

CWR: What persuaded you to suspend public Masses in the Diocese of Tyler on March 18, and what persuaded you to resume May 1?

Bishop Strickland: In both situations, I made my decision based on the medical information provided to me by medical people. Just before the March 18 decision, I met with my staff, hospital representatives and people in the media in Tyler. I received the best information I could on where things were. After the meeting, I decided to go along with what the rest of Texas and the country were doing, suspending public Masses and following the public health guidelines.

In the weeks following, I kept looking at options for how we could open up in a reasonable way, mitigating the effects of the virus. When Texas Governor Greg Abbott said we could gather with 25% occupancy of our buildings, it led to a partial reopening of our churches, employing such virus-mitigating factors as social distancing and the use of face masks. The harder question involved the reception of Communion, the Body of Christ, in an appropriate way.

I encouraged our pastors at our 60+ locations to look at their churches, and have numbers on pews where people can be six-foot separated, clustered as individuals, couples or groups of up to four from a single household. That’s where we are at the moment. I think we are maxed out with social distancing; even if the governor says we can increase to 50% occupancy, I think with social distancing we’ve reached our limit.

CWR: You’ve had two weekends of public Masses in May. Are people returning to church?

Bishop Strickland: We’re gradually building our numbers, with a few more on the second weekend as opposed to the first. But, I was surprised. We scheduled additional Masses to accommodate larger numbers of people. The idea was that if people came to their parish and the church was at capacity with social distancing, we’d have another Mass starting soon after. I myself went to one of our Spanish communities to help out a lone pastor. But, as it turned out, we didn’t need those secondary Masses.

For example, I live nearby our diocese’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It has numbered places on pews throughout the church from one to 70. The first weekend, about 30 of those places were used. The following weekend, maybe 35 or 40 of those spaces were in use. I celebrated a weekday 7 a.m. Mass today [May 15], which maybe before the pandemic would draw 50; today, there were about 30.

Our dispensation to attend Sunday Mass is still in place, and we are encouraging our 65 and older population and our ill and vulnerable populations to stay home, so I’m sure this was a contributing factor.

CWR: Some Catholics are concerned that being away from Mass in the parish so long will result in many not returning for public Masses, perhaps thinking that Mass is something that can be merely watched on live-stream. Do you have this concern?

Bishop Strickland: Yes, this is a concern. Watching Mass live-stream is not a substitute for being present at Mass. I don’t know how many Catholics pay attention to the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, but with the dispensation to attend Mass, I can imagine that we have some younger families with small children choosing to stay home and watch Mass on a computer.

CWR: Do you foresee loosening any of these current restrictions in the upcoming weeks? Do you have any idea when things will get back to normal?

Bishop Strickland: Even if the governor allows us to increase to higher capacities, I think with the six-foot separation dictated by the virus, we’re looking at a summer of staying where we are at. This is the time of year that we do Confirmations, which tend to have packed churches. But, this year we’re going to have to limit the numbers of people who can attend; priests are going to have to have multiple smaller celebrations. I gave our pastors some basic guidelines, but then left it to them to decide how to do it.

CWR: A month and a half you were largely isolated from your fellow priests and the general public. What were your thoughts during this time?

Bishop Strickland: I have spoken to a number of priests. It has been challenging. It has not been a pleasant experience. People have appreciated the live-stream Sunday Masses, but they are a pale substitute for actually gathering for the Sacred Liturgy.

People have the impression that we priests are mere bachelors, living a simple life, doing our own thing. But we want to be with our families, which is our parish communities. It hit us hard not to be gathering with you.

It’s an eerie and unpleasant feeling to have our churches closed. I live close by our cathedral. Our Sunday 10 a.m. Mass previously drew a large gathering, which I really missed during the time of the lockdown.

I normally have a very busy calendar, but with the pandemic, my calendar was cancelled. During the shutdown, very often I was the only person in the chancery, answering emails, working on projects. This is not what we as priests committed to when we were ordained.

CWR: How has it affected your seminarians?

Bishop Strickland: They’re probably more committed than before. They realize people need the sacraments, and they need the Church. It has been a disruption for them. They are in school, and their academic participation had to be retooled. But they’ve rolled with the punches pretty well.

CWR: The Diocese of Oakland, to pick one example, has laid off 600 employees in its parishes and schools. How has this time financially impacted your diocese?

Bishop Strickland: Thankfully, we haven’t had to lay off anyone. We did get federal Paycheck Protection for our churches and schools. And, in some parishes, priests are the only staff. It has given us some breathing room.

Giving is coming back. We have an annual bishop’s appeal that is a major part of our funding, which is back at about 85% from previous years. The assessment from our parishes is yielding about the same. We’re watching to see what the economic impact will be, but I’ll be doing my best to maintain employment for our people.

CWR: Have your staff returned to the office?

Bishop Strickland: At the chancery, we currently have about 60% of the staff working, with the remainder working from home. It’s about the same for our parishes. If they’re in the age 65+ category, or have serious health conditions, we’re encouraging them to stay home. We’re letting them make their own judgments. Those who do come to the office are maintaining social distancing, avoiding touching, and wearing masks.

CWR: Early models were predicting that millions of Americans would die from COVID-19, but it has turned out to be far fewer than many predicted. In hindsight, do you think it was a good decision for the nation’s dioceses to close down public Masses?

Bishop Strickland: Hindsight is always 20-20 in the year 2020! I think we could have been just as effective with mitigation efforts and maintaining a partially opened status.

Whether there would have been many more cases had we not had the lockdown I’ll let the historians consider. I did consult medical people before suspending public Masses, and they advised me to do so as a way to flatten the curve and not overwhelm our hospitals. My decision, like that of bishops and pastors across the country, was based on what I was told. I don’t regret the decision I made; I was acting on the best information I had.

I’m glad we’re returning to a limited openness, but I’m afraid this may be with us for some time. I’m all for the development of a vaccine—but an ethnical vaccine, not one using the remains of aborted unborn children—as well as medications that are truly effective.

CWR: Are you aware of anyone in the diocese who has been sick with COVID-19?

Bishop Strickland: I’d say I’ve heard of about five cases, no deaths. No one at the chancery had it.

CWR: There have been a lot of complaints that the government is over-reaching its authority in regards to churches, telling them when they can open and how they can operate. Do you share these concerns?

Bishop Strickland: I have heard of reports that concern me, but I haven’t experienced this in Texas. Our governor has been respectful of churches and sees them as essential in human life, taking care of our spiritual needs.

It can be very hard with news, however, to know what is going on. There is so much disinformation out there—people call it “fake news”—so it is hard to know if reports you see are slanted one way or another. But, in general terms, I agree we need to be alert.

I would add that our U.S. Constitution guarantees us religious freedom, but we have to realize that with that freedom comes responsibility. The governor tells us that we are free to attend Mass, but we have the responsibility to do so in a way that mitigates the spread of the virus.

CWR: Another thing we’ve heard is that those the state deems essential businesses may continue to operate but those it deems non-essential businesses must remain closed. I’m sure you’ve heard the complaint that a business such as a liquor store can remain open, while churches must remain closed. Do you think governors ought to declare churches to be in the “essential” category?

Bishop Strickland: Yes, as our Texas governor did. But as I said, it is our responsibility to use commonsense so we mitigate the effects of the virus.

CWR: You signed the Appeal for the Church and the World expressing a concern that governments may use the pandemic as a pretext for limiting the rights of citizens. Why did you decide to sign this document?

Bishop Strickland: I signed because I thought it raised questions about issues we needed to be talking about. People have said to me, “I can’t believe you’re getting caught up in conspiracy theories.” But it isn’t a conspiracy theory; instead, it asks questions about whether or not we are getting good, clear information from the state.

It also touched on one of my critical issues, the possible use of material from aborted babies to make a vaccine for COVID-19. [“Let us also remember, as Pastors, that for Catholics it is morally unacceptable to develop or use vaccines derived from material from aborted fetuses.”] If we believe in the moral teachings of our faith, and if we believe in the sanctity of human life, we can’t accept this.

This article first appeared HERE.