Different Churches, Different Views on COVID-19
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in the 5/23/20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
Seventy-year-old Timothy Pelc, a Catholic priest who serves St. Ambrose parish in Grosse Pointe Park, MI, isn’t one to allow even a pandemic to stymie the celebration of Easter with his flock. When social distancing requirements prevented him from blessing parishioners and their Easter food baskets with holy water on Easter Eve in the traditional manner, Pelc devised a truly avant-garde means of accomplishing this task. He established a drive-thru lane outside his church and used a squirt gun.
One really must have been raised a Catholic to appreciate such a novel means of dispensing holy water. Even at 66, this childhood Catholic still recalls the reverence accorded this substance, which is simply ordinary water that has been blessed by a priest. We were introduced to it as infants during our baptisms, when it was sprinkled on our foreheads to wash away the Original Sin with which we had been born.
We also dipped our fingers in small basins of holy water upon entering church and made the sign of the cross on ourselves. As I recall, some basins simply held the water itself while others contained a sponge that had been soaked in holy water. It never crossed our minds that this water, which had dampened so many fingers, was teeming with germs.
No Catholic home in my childhood was complete without a small bottle of holy water for personal use. Holy water allegedly protected one from harm. My grandmother shared a story she had heard as a child from a relative who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. Her ship was menaced by a mighty storm until this immigrant sprinkled some holy water over the ship’s railing. The sea, she told my grandmother, became miraculously calm.
My poor mother was terrified of thunderstorms and dispersed holy water throughout our house in the belief that it would prevent wind damage and lightening strikes. I remember our dog fleeing from room to room to avoid being sprinkled.
Pelc, who wore a mask while wielding his squirt gun, deserves praise for observing public health guidelines as he ministered to his congregants. Such was not the case at a Catholic church in the Houston area. Holy Ghost Catholic Church re-opened on May 2 and again held Sunday Masses. Weekday Masses were also resumed at Holy Ghost.
In a statement released on May 18, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston announced that a 79-year-old priest, who is a member of the Redemptorist order that serves the church, had died five days. His cause of death was unknown. This priest had been living at a residence that he shared with other members of this order.
“This past weekend,” the statement issued by the archdiocese admitted, “five of the seven members of the Redemptorists religious community learned that they had tested positive for COVID-19, including two priests who been active in celebrating public Masses at Holy Ghost since May 2nd. As a result of these findings, all Masses at Holy Ghost remain cancelled until further notice.”
The statement concluded by urging anyone who attended these Masses to monitor their health for any symptoms of the disease. “There are a number of free COVID-19 testing sites in our community,” the statement helpfully noted.
Terry Firma, whose internet article introduced me to this catastrophe, posed the following question: “Do you think the Catholic Church will reimburse parishioners for COVID-related hospital bills that can easily run into six figures per person? If so, your faith is bigger than mine.”
As a Catholic child, I was taught that missing Sunday Mass was a mortal sin — the kind of transgression that sent one to hell. Perhaps the clergy of Holy Ghost were anxious to resume saying Masses out of fear for their congregants’ immortal souls. They should have been equally concerned with their congregants’ mortal bodies.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947.