Catholics in San Francisco marched in Eucharistic processions across the city on Sunday to protest the city’s continued restrictions on public worship.
“For months I have pleaded with the City on your behalf, advocating for your need of the consolation of the Mass, and the consolation you derive from the practice of your faith and connection with your faith community. City Hall ignored us,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in his homily at an outdoor Mass following the processions Sept. 20.
“It has become clear to me that they just don’t care about you...We have been patiently putting up with unjust treatment long enough, and now it is time to come together to witness to our faith and to the primacy of God, and tell City Hall: No More!”
San Francisco’s restrictions on public worship remain among the strictest in the country. Mayor London Breed announced last week that starting Sept. 14, houses of worship may have 50 people at religious services outdoors. In addition, indoor private prayer is allowed, but only one person at a time is allowed inside.
Breed also said the city will allow indoor services up to a maximum of 25 people by Oct. 1. This is, Cordileone has noted, less than 1% of the capacity of San Francisco’s cathedral.
Previously, the limit for outdoor services had been 12 people, with all indoor services prohibited. The archdiocese covers the city and county of San Francisco— where the cathedral is located— as well as San Mateo and Marin counties.
In contrast, hotels in San Francisco are fully reopened; indoor gyms are set to reopen at 10% capacity; and most retail stores are allowed to operate at 50% capacity, while malls are restricted to 25%. Gyms operated in government buildings for police officers and other government employees have already reopened.
In addition, Archbishop Cordileone has noted, businesses requiring extended, close one-on-one contact reopened Sept. 14, such as hair salons, nail salons and massage parlors, but “we are allowed only one person in church at a time for prayer.”
“One person at a time in this great Cathedral to pray? What an insult. This is a mockery. They are mocking you, and even worse, they are mocking God,” Cordileone said.
Three separate Eucharistic processions Sept. 20 began at St. Anthony, St. Patrick, and Star of the Sea parishes, and converged at United Nations Plaza near San Francisco City Hall before proceeding to the cathedral.
The archdiocese ordered banners for parishioners to carry during the processions; 100 in English, 15 in Spanish, and 5 in Chinese that read: “We Are Essential: Free the Mass!”
At the 11 am Mass celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone, and additional Masses celebrated simultaneously in the cathedral plaza, all 900 spaces prepared for the outdoor Masses were filled, with additional people lining the sidewalks. An archdiocesan spokesperson told CNA that she estimated about 1,500 people were in attendance.
Cordileone said his time as a pastor at a rural, desert parish near the US-Mexico border taught him that caring for the rejected and the downtrodden in society, in this case undocumented immigrants, is an essential part of the Church’s mission.
”The highest law is love of God and love of neighbor, and that law has to take precedence over the human-made law of the state when government would ask us to turn our backs on God or our neighbor in need,” he noted.
“Now in San Francisco, all of us here are being put at the end of the line. No matter how rich or poor, no matter whether newly arrived or from families that have been here for many generations, it is our Catholic faith that unites us, and it is because of our Catholic faith that we are being put at the end of the line.”
Priests at many parishes around the archdiocese, including the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, are celebrating multiple Masses every Sunday— outside, and spaced out— in order to adapt to the restrictions.
Outdoor Masses pose their own health challenges, as the Bay Area is experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world, due to smoke and other pollutants coming from wildfires ravaging the West Coast.
While Cordileone has said city officials have been “cordial and respectful” in their dialogue with the archdiocese, he said the city still has not responded to the archdiocese’s safety plan— outlining how churches could be safely opened for indoor services— which they submitted in May.
Becket, a religious liberty law firm, has a page tracking restrictions on public worship related to the pandemic. By their estimation, six states— California, Nevada, Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine— are treating religious activities unequally as compared to similar secular activities.
The City of San Francisco has been closely monitoring Catholic churches in the city and has repeatedly issued warnings to the archdiocese for apparent health order violations
Cordileone said he himself has noted “very few” violations of the city’s health orders by parishes in the archdiocese, although the few that have occurred have garnered heavy criticism in the secular press.
“This willful discrimination is affecting us all. Yes, discrimination, because there is no other word for it,” Cordileone said.
“We ask: why can people shop at Nordstrom’s at 25% capacity but only one of you at a time is allowed to pray inside of this great Cathedral, your Cathedral? Is this equality? No, there is no reason for this new rule except a desire to put Catholics – to put you – at the back of the line.”
Cordileone encouraged Catholics to continue to pray, suggesting the rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, fasting on Fridays, and availing themselves of the sacrament of confession.
In advocating for a safe reopening of indoor Masses, Cordileone has cited a recent article on Mass attendance and COVID-19, authored Aug. 19 by doctors Thomas McGovern, Deacon Timothy Flanigan, and Paul Cieslak for Real Clear Science.
By following public health guidelines, Catholic Churches have largely avoided viral spread during the more than 1 million Masses that have been celebrated across the United States since the lifting of shelter-in-place orders, the doctors found.
They said in their article that there is no evidence that church services are higher risk than similar activities when guidelines are followed, and no coronavirus outbreaks have not yet been linked to the celebration of the Mass.
Even while protesting the city’s apparent unequal application of health restrictions, the archbishop has encouraged his priests to lead their parishes in following the city’s guidelines.
Many of San Francisco’s problems, from homelessness to drugs to crime, stem from an abandonment of God, he said.
“Our blessed Lord is openly mocked to the gleeful grins of the cultural elites. The sacred symbol of the religious habit is blasphemed with glowing approval of those who profess mutual respect and tolerance for others who are different, while they openly discriminate against us.”
“In fighting for justice, we fight for the glory of God. And so I am calling on every Catholic in this City, and this country, to continue to exercise responsible citizenship, to abide by reasonable public health rules, and to continue to serve our community, despite the mockery to which we are being subject in so many different ways. This is God’s way, and this is how I see Catholics serving Our Lord.”