Catholics march through the Mission District in San Francisco Sept. 20 in a eucharistic procession to urge city officials to further ease limits on worship attendance, saying the Eucharist should be considered an essential service. In an effort called by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone to highlight what he said is unfair application of pandmic public health guidelines on worship gatherings, Catholics processed from Civic Center Plaza to St. Mary's Cathedral. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Office of Human Life & Dignity, Archdiocese of San Francisco

Archbishop Cordileone: San Francisco Mass Restrictions ‘Mocking God’

Report by Nicholas Wolfram Smith, from Catholic San Francisco

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More than a thousand Catholics from around the Bay Area gathered Sunday morning in San Francisco for a eucharistic procession to protest the city’s restrictions on religious gatherings. Led by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, the crowd walked from Civic Center Plaza across from City Hall to St. Mary’s Cathedral before spreading across the plaza and parking lots to attend one of 18 Masses being offered.

“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 to tell City Hall, no more,” Archbishop Cordileone said.

The archbishop invited Catholics to join him for the procession Sept. 13, a few days after Mayor London Breed published a reopening plan that allowed for more indoor businesses to resume but restricted worship sites to one indoor visitor and up to 50 congregants for services outdoors. Indoor worship with up to 25 people could resume by October, according to her plan.

In a highly charged homily delivered in Spanish and then English, Archbishop Cordileone called the city’s restrictions on religious worship “unrealistic and suffocating,” and said Catholics in San Francisco have been discriminated against as the city loosens its restrictions on public activities. Indoor gyms, malls, nail salons, museums, aquariums and grades TK-6 have all been approved to reopen, while an archdiocesan coronavirus safety plan submitted in May has not received an official response.

The archbishop said he has met with city and county officials to advocate for the ability to worship publicly without result. “For months, city hall ignored us, city hall ignored you. It has become clear to me that they just don’t care about you. To them, you are nothing. To them, you don’t matter,” he said.

The single visitor limit on a building like the 2500-person capacity is “an insult” and “a mockery,” done out of a desire “to put Catholics at the back of the line,” he said.

“Our people are hurting because they cannot come to church, they cannot receive the sacraments, they cannot exercise their natural right, protected by the first amendment, to worship without suffering punishment from our city,” he said.

Archbishop Cordileone encouraged Catholics to continue to be strong in their faith and practice love for the poor and requested the archdiocesan faithful to continue to live out the consecration to the Immaculate Heart by praying the rosary, adoring the Eucharist, fasting, and going to confession.

In closing his homily, the archbishop called on Catholics “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.”

The day began with several hundred Catholics walking in a Eucharistic procession from St. Anthony of Padua to Civic Center Plaza, where hundreds more Catholics from the archdiocese and Bay Area had gathered. A mix of printed and handmade signs dotted the crowd, along with large banners in English and Spanish that said “We are essential: free the Mass!”

Clemente Silva, a parishioner of St. Peter Church in the Mission District, said “Let them open the churches to us because our children need to continue with faith in God.” He and his wife Erica, and their children Perla, Lupe, Alison, and Deren joined the eucharistic procession.

“The government does not listen to us, so we have to go out to protest and let the government see that we really need our faith and to make ourselves visible because we are many,” he said. “As you can see we are thousands of people who want the church open again.”

St. Dominic parishioner Joseph Stillwell said, “the restrictions should be lifted in accordance with actual scientific data, so basic social distancing with a percentage of capacity. What’s important is that the restrictions are not discriminatory, especially as things reopen.”

Archbishop Cordileone has been arguing that religious groups should receive accommodations similar to other reopened activities in San Francisco, which tend to open with limited capacity rather than capped numbers.

San Francisco has reopened at a more conservative pace than many other counties in the state: until Sept. 14, outdoor religious gatherings were limited to 12 persons. Additional guidance from San Francisco’s Department of Public Health released Sept. 14 prohibits hosting simultaneous outdoor religious services, like those the cathedral has held since Aug. 15.

California Department of Public Health guidance on coronavirus reopening limits indoor attendance at worship services to either 100 people or 25% of building capacity. The CDPH recommends outdoor services should follow safety protocols, including mask-wearing and physical distancing.

Diocese of San Jose Bishop Oscar Cantú supported the archbishop in a statement, saying that he supports public health restrictions, but those in San Francisco have been “uniquely severe.

“As the rest of the state, including our own County, was safely lowering the restrictions on gatherings, the County and City of San Francisco was not,” he said.

Bishop Michael C. Barber, S.J. of Oakland also condemned San Francisco’s “draconian” measures, voicing his concern that churches in the city “be treated fairly with regard to indoor gatherings permitted to other groups of our size.”

After Archbishop Cordileone criticized the restrictions on Mass in a Washington Post editorial,  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “With all due respect to my archbishop, I think we should follow science on this.” Pelosi said she misses going to Mass regularly but said attendance should be  “scientifically safe, rather than jeopardizing people’s health if they want to go to church,” she said.

In a response published Sept. 19, Archbishop Cordileone pointed to a recent article by three doctors arguing that church services that follow public health guidelines are not a greater risk for COVID-19 outbreaks than other similar activities.

“There is no science that says only one person should be allowed to pray in churches such as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, which seats 2,500 people. There’s only one explanation for such a rule: a dislike of the Catholic Church.”

With museums being allowed to open with 25% of capacity, he said, “Why won’t the City and County of San Francisco treat Catholics––at a minimum––the same?”

Lorena Rojas contributed.

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