Bishop Zubik holds on to hope amid shutdown

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
April 5, 2020

In mid-March, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik joined other Pennsylvania Roman Catholic bishops in lifting the usual obligation that Catholics attend weekend Mass — an action that, combined with a growing public wariness of public gatherings amid the coronavirus threat, led to far lower attendance than usual. 

That was just the beginning.

After that weekend of March 14-15, Bishop Zubik canceled Masses and other large church gatherings entirely, while arranging for priests to hear confessions in more spacious but still-confidential settings. Some priests kept their sanctuaries open for individual prayer, and there was still opportunity for small gatherings for baptisms or funerals. Confirmations and first communions were canceled for the last half of March, then for April.

But with a Pittsburgh priest testing positive for COVID-19 and two entire teams of parish priests self-isolating as a precaution due to potential exposure to the virus, Bishop Zubik ordered all church buildings locked in the Diocese of Pittsburgh as of March 28 until further notice. There’s no longer opportunity for confession either in the buildings or in parking lots.

Canceling Mass was the “most difficult decision I have had to make as a bishop,” Bishop Zubik said. Deciding to lock the buildings was “excruciating.”

The heart of Catholic practice involves sacraments — using the stuff of daily life, such as bread and wine for communion, water for baptism and oil for anointing at times ranging from confirmation to death. Now, even confessions, weddings, baptisms and funerals are postponed. Burial rites can still be done, with funerals to follow at a later date, and priests can conduct the anointing of the gravely ill. Priests also can grant “general absolution” or forgiveness at a hospital or similar health-care setting where hearing individual confessions is impossible, per a recent authorization from Pope Francis.

But for the most part, the faithful aren’t able to partake in sacraments these days.

“Our sacramental system is very tactile in that it’s an outward sign of God’s love within us,” Bishop Zubik said in an interview last week. “It causes great pain that we can’t celebrate the sacraments, but that doesn’t mean we don't experience God’s grace.”

Leading without sharing

So how does the church lead its faithful in worship without sharing the sacraments with them?

In some ways, similar to the way other religious groups do — through unconventional means, the bishop said. Many parishes are getting livestreaming options up and running. Bishop Zubik and a small group of others at St. Paul Seminary in East Carnegie, where he lives, are livestreaming Masses and other prayer services.

To be sure, broadcasting Masses is nothing new for Catholics, but usually as a supplement for actually being in church, or aimed primarily for those who are shut in, having a deacon visit to give communion in person.

Still, Bishop Zubik said people can remain in spiritual communion during this time.

After spending 10 hours on the phone last Saturday with advisers and other stakeholders, he concluded, “This is the step we have to take. This could be the tip of the iceberg” of the pandemic’s impact.

“We have to be able to provide assurance to the faithful of the diocese we’re doing everything we can to protect them,” he said, while doing “all we can to keep people connected with God.”

Some priests, he said, have struggled with these decisions to close churches and access to sacraments, but Bishop Zubik said he encourages them to minister in ways that they can, while protecting others’ physical well-being.

“Every leader has to be able to take risks, but when you become the risk, you have to step back,” he said.

When he describes these latest experiences as “excruciating” and the most difficult of his tenure, he has plenty to compare them with.

Bishop Zubik, 70, has spent more than a dozen years as head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he grew up in Ambridge and was ordained a priest.

He’s had his share of controversies and major decisions already. He received withering criticisms in the wake of the 2018 grand jury report into his and his predecessors’ handling of sexual abuse by priests, and as he’s implemented a controversial consolidation of parishes and schools throughout the six counties of the diocese in response to declining ranks of priests, members and participation.

Following these controversies, parishioner giving declined, and the diocese made a round of staff cuts last year. After the diocese launched a compensation program for victims of sexual abuse last year in the face of growing legislative and judicial efforts to give victims the right to sue over long-ago abuse, Bishop Zubik continues to say he’s trying to avoid a bankruptcy filing even now with the added financial hit from the virus.

Then came the virus, affecting every area of diocesan life, from parish worship to canceled Lenten fish fries to hard financial realities. The diocese expects budget shortfalls as offerings decline amid the cancellation of Masses and the likely economic hardship of many parishioners. But Bishop Zubik still hopes to avoid bankruptcy and emphasized that the compensation fund for abuse victims will not be cut.

Bishop Zubik said he’s spent more time than usual in devotions, including what he called a holy hour of prayer each day in the seminary chapel.

“I feel a closeness to God in a deeper way,” he said. 

He takes heart from the words of Bishop Regis Canevin, who led the Diocese of Pittsburgh during the 1918 influenza pandemic, when health authorities also ordered the closing of churches.

“It is indeed a great hardship for Catholics to be deprived of the opportunity to assemble for Mass and other divine services in their churches,” Bishop Canevin wrote, “but when, in the judgment of the civil authorities, whose duty it is to safeguard public health, it becomes necessary to close churches and schools and take other strong precautions against epidemics of virulent disease, the only rule for pastors and people is to co-operate with the civil authorities of their district, obey the laws and comply with the regulations that are enacted for the public good.”



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