Bishop Peter Baldacchino of the Diocese of Las Cruces said the Church is the “essential service of hope” during the coronavirus pandemic, and that the Church must “welcome as many as we can” in line with public health regulations.

The bishop announced April 15 that public Masses and sacramental life in his diocese – including weddings and funerals – would resume, even while observing state public health rules that prohibit indoor gatherings of more than five people.

“We are the great essential service of hope, now more than ever,” the bishop told Catholic News Agency (CNA) in an April 16 interview.

On Wednesday, Baldacchino circulated a letter to all the priests of his diocese, lifting the outright ban on the public celebration of Mass and encouraging them to resume sacramental ministry.

“You look around us right now in this country and what do you see? People are dying of this terrible disease, but also of despair. There are reports of increased suicides, crises of addiction, violence in the homes. This is a moment of total darkness for many.”

“We must bring the light of Christ into this darkness. We cannot close ourselves off, closeness in this moment is the one thing forbidden, and yet this is what we are called as priests to be: close to our people,” the bishop wrote.

Baldacchino’s April 15 letter also authorized priests to distribute Holy Communion, while observing a specific protocol he delineated, and to hold weddings and funerals on church property.

The bishop told CNA that, so far, the response in his diocese had been broadly positive, and Catholics have thanked him for the move. But, he said, there he has also heard criticism, both from those insisting he has not gone far enough and those who think he has gone too far.

Bishop Peter Baldacchino and three priests take part in the Adoration of the Cross in the cathedral parking lot on Good Friday. (David McNamara/Diocese of Las Cruces)

Baldacchino said he is surprised by some comments objecting to the five-person limit to public Masses inside church buildings, pointing out that this is a reflection of state law and not his own preference.

“First of all, I don’t want to limit the churches to only five people. This is the decision of the governor to call churches ‘not essential,’ and I couldn’t disagree more. Many of our churches are able to hold hundreds, so we could safely fit 20 or more people while observing all the needs of social distancing. I believe the governor is misguided in not allowing churches to safely have more than 5 people, while Walmart and Home Depot can. Which of these do you think is more essential? If we have a soul, the answer is clear. You can’t buy what we offer.”

“I want the priests to be able to go out to the people – right now we cannot be boxed up in the church building or in our old ways of thinking, Christ is calling us to find new ways to announce the Gospel, and I don’t mean online.”

Baldacchino told CNA that earlier this year he had moved out of the bishop’s official residence, a house several miles outside of the city, and into the cathedral rectory, where he is living in a guest room. He said the bishop’s house is in the process of being sold to raise money for the diocese.

“I wanted to be closer to the priests and the people, that is where a bishop belongs. I want us all to be ever closer.”

Baldacchino ordered the construction of a stage outside his Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and used it to celebrate the liturgies of the Easter Triduum. The congregation remained in their cars, with empty parking spaces between each vehicle, and the bishop distributed Communion to each car, wearing a face mask and gloves.

“Someone reported us to the state police,” he told CNA. “I was amazed. We did this in the open, for Easter, and someone calls the police: the fear people are living in right now.”

The bishop told CNA that when the state police came to see him about the Easter celebrations they were “apologetic.”

“They came, they said they were very sorry to ask but they needed to know what had happened. We explained everything and they said ‘Father, this is all fine, we cannot see any problems.’”

An aerial view of this year's Holy Thursday parking lot service at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Las Cruces. (David McNamara/Diocese of Las Cruces)

His letter to priests on Tuesday set clear guidelines for pastors to say Mass in similar ways, explaining that where parking lot Masses are not feasible, priests are permitted to offer Mass outside, elsewhere on church property, with congregations of any size observing social distancing rules.

“We have to be creative, we have to respond to the times and the needs of the people,” he said.

Baldacchino also rejected the idea that resuming Masses within the limits of the public health order is elitist or exclusive.

“Right now I have the option for zero people or five. Let’s do what we can indoors. The point is not to exclude anyone, but to welcome as many as we can.”

“The pastors know very well how to proceed with prudence – to take registrations online when there are only limited spaces, to ensure there is a rotation, to start with the peripheries, to come to everyone in time. But again, the point of this really is to go out, that would be my preference.”

“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.

“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 Big Mac and Miller Lite, essential, the Body of Christ, not so much.”

Bishop Peter Baldacchino distributes Communion to a family in their car on Holy Thursday. (David McNamara/Diocese of Las Cruces)

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 Redemptoris 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.”