For California Catholics, the ability to worship in church this Lent is a tremendous gift
This has been a long and tumultuous year for the church-going faithful of California, particularly in San Francisco, where church doors have been shut, locked, and all but barricaded. Worshiping on devices, Bay Area Catholics endured months of separation from the true presence of our Lord. Easter and Christmas, the linchpins of the Catholic liturgical year, saw congregations divided, at home, on individual screens.
But the dark days were numbered. Led by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, there were marches, petitions, and Masses employed in the battle against the City of San Francisco for the right to worship. The city government had been relentless in its size limitations on worship gatherings. Even as the state allowed retail, dining, and churches to open at a prescribed pace, the City of San Francisco denied churches that ability. At a particularly low point in August, all indoor worship was banned, and only 12 people were allowed to gather for any outdoor service.
Archbishop Cordileone’s ardent protestations garnered national attention as more states fought back against the religious discrimination that kept churches dark while establishments that feed the economy were open for business. In September 2020 the US Attorney General’s office sent a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, threatening legal action if the city would not allow churches to open. Around the same time, there were cases from California and Nevada before the US Supreme Court on this very subject. In both cases, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold each state’s attendance restrictions for churches. California maintained its restrictions, and Nevada church services were limited to 50 individuals while casinos, restaurants, and amusement parks could operate at 50 percent capacity.
While these decisions were a blow, the fight to open church doors was not over. Fall of 2020 saw a sea change take place within the Supreme Court. With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in September and the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October, churches of all denominations saw their moment to appeal. Quickly, in November, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Jewish synagogues brought forward cases in which they remonstrated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on churches in COVID “hot spots.” The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to block the State of New York from imposing such limitations.
With such a clear volte-face from the decisions of just a few months prior, the iron was indeed hot. South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, CA, and Harvest Rock Church (Harvest International Ministry), which has 160 churches across California, brought cases in which they challenged California Governor Newsom’s complete ban on indoor worship throughout the state. With another 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court stood in defense of religious freedom and ruled that California cannot continue to prohibit indoor worship services. It was a long, arduous road, but religious freedom prevailed and continues to do so.
Because of these legal victories, the protest of church leaders, and the tireless hope and prayers of the faithful, here we stand: gathered together for the celebration of the Mass, receiving our Lord with hearts overflowing with joy. It was only a year ago when Lent was interrupted by the pandemic, and Easter was spent at home. For California Catholics in particular, we should never forget the desert sojourn we endured. This Lent, in which we gather safely, distanced, and masked, is already a tremendous gift — so much so that it almost doesn’t feel like Lent. We’re back in our creaky pews, nodding heads toward familiar faces (at least what look like the top halves of familiar faces), and receiving the boundless graces that can come only from the Eucharist. It is a reminder that there are no substitutes, no surrogates for the Body of Christ.
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