Bishop Tobin Offers Hope, Shares Concerns for Future in the Age of COVID-19

Diocesan Shepherd ‘aspires’ to have even limited public worship by Pentecost


PROVIDENCE — While the nation and world continue to struggle with how best to return to a sense of normalcy in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin is seeking to give the faithful a ray of hope that they will not be separated from participating in the Mass for any longer than necessary.

“It is my fond hope, my prayer, my ‘aspiration,’ that by May 31, the Solemnity of Pentecost, we will be able to gather in our churches again, even with a limited number of worshippers if necessary, for the public celebration of Holy Mass and to invoke the healing grace of the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Tobin said, in a pastoral message released Monday.

“As Saint Pope Paul VI memorably said, ‘The Church needs her perennial Pentecost. She needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, and prophecy in her outlook. She needs to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit.’”

Despite his aspirations for Pentecost, no public celebration has yet been planned as Bishop Tobin continues to adhere to state directives on mass gatherings in the State of Rhode Island.

Beyond Pentecost, he acknowledged that large scale, festive celebrations of confirmations and first holy Communions in the diocese will have to be deferred until a later time.

While the ordination of one diocesan candidate to the priesthood is still scheduled to take place in June — although in a very small, limited ceremony not open to the public — the ordination of two candidates to the diaconate has already been rescheduled to early fall.

One rite that the bishop would prefer not to delay is the annual baptism of catechumens and reception into the Church of other candidates, normally held at the Easter Vigil.

“It’s very important that we not interrupt, for even a single minute more than necessary, the journey of faith that our catechumens and candidates have traveled,” Bishop Tobin said.

Although many parishioners have been able to participate in live-streamed Masses from the safety of their homes, many have lamented not being able to receive the Eucharist, especially at Easter.

Bishop Tobin said that it was a very difficult decision for him to suspend public worship in late March, especially as the celebration of Easter neared. But keeping everyone as safe as possible in the middle of a global health crisis weighed heavily on his decision to do so.

“It broke my heart when we were obliged to suspend all public worship and to severely limit access to our church buildings. The pain of this moment was heightened by the approaching celebration of Holy Week and Easter which is so important for us, so central to our faith,” the bishop said.

In his message, Bishop Tobin addressed those whom he said have questioned why he wasn’t “more outspoken and defiant” in responding to the restrictions imposed upon houses of worship.

This includes his decision to encourage diocesan priests to follow the governor’s directive to churches that palm branches not be offered to the faithful on Palm Sunday this year to protect the health and safety of all. This prompted several parishes to cancel scheduled palm branch drive-by and pick up opportunities planned at local churches, leaving many disappointed.

“From the very beginning, and throughout this crisis, I made a conscious decision to be a ‘good citizen’ and to cooperate with public officials in every way possible, primarily because of our mutual and serious obligation to protect the health and safety of our fellow citizens in ways determined by health experts. I felt the heavy responsibility of setting a good example for others,” Bishop Tobin said, noting that the Diocese of Providence was not alone in cooperating with local governments in following these restrictions.

On the financial front, the bishop acknowledged that the COVID-19 crisis has had, and will continue to have, a devastating impact on the fiscal health of the Diocese of Providence, including its parishes, schools and related organizations.

A saving grace for some of the diocesan outreach ministries, whose operating budgets depend heavily on donations to the Catholic Charity Appeal, is that while the health crisis has severely crippled fundraising efforts, some people are still making their regular annual contributions online.

This has allowed at least some funding to reach those on the diocesan front lines who are offering outreach, whether in the form of supermarket gift cards, heating assistance and even baby formula and supplies for parents of young children.

Appeal organizers plan to send out interim mailings and to conduct a more robust campaign for donations this fall.

And while the influx of some federal monies made available doesn’t address its long-term financial challenges, these funds are helping to at least mitigate some of the financial impact for the diocese and some of its agencies.

“The infusion of federal money to various church entities – the diocese, parishes, schools, and nursing homes – has been and will be extremely helpful,” Bishop Tobin said, expressing his gratitude.

These tough times have brought to the forefront many tough questions about how to best ensure the continued financial viability of the institutional church.

“Will some parishes and schools have to close? Will major capital projects have to be deferred? Will some popular programs be reduced or eliminated? Will there be a reduction in work force, a freeze in new hiring, a change in the work-week schedule, a reduction in salaries? Will we have to sell property, establish new lines of credits and borrow significantly? It’s very important to note that none of these measures have been determined, but all of them could be on the table going forward,” Bishop Tobin said.

“But it’s safe to presume that everyone in the Diocese of Providence will be affected by the coming temporal and financial changes in one way or another.”

A return at some point to at least a new level of normal raises its own set of questions about how that can be achieved. Questions about COVID-19 and its continued virulence may keep many people away from participating in public Masses.

While the advent of quarantines and social distancing must indeed be a humbling experience for those used to living and worshipping without restrictions, the bishop said he wonders if this historic time has also served to purify people.

“Has it challenged our smug presumption that the Church and the sacraments will always be there for us? Has it reordered our priorities and re-awakened our thirst for God, the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being?’” he asked.

As it has been the case for many today, Bishop Tobin said he has experienced a range of emotions as the crisis has progressed, from anxiousness to irritation to anger.

“I look forward to the end of the dire daily briefings with the litany of macabre statistics; to the end of wearing the face masks that make us look and feel silly; to being able to cross the state line without the fear of being forced into quarantine; and to removing the need to stay six feet apart from other human beings,” the bishop said.

But through it all, the diocesan shepherd has been edified and encouraged by the priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese of Providence, whom he says have been patient, prudent, prayerful and supportive.

“You have given good example and have helped lead our whole community out of this valley of tears,” he said.

The bishop said he is convinced that this moment invites us the Church community to redouble its commitment to evangelization.

“We have a new opportunity to reach out to and welcome back our own faithful Catholics whom we’ve desperately missed, as well as Catholics who have drifted away — especially so many younger adults — those who have been alienated from the Church for any reason, and those who have never been members of the Church.”

Bishop Tobin said that he’s looking forward to that day when the diocesan family will be reunited so that the normal, daily, essential work of the Church can resume.

“I look forward to being with you once again for pastoral visits, Holy Mass, the celebration of the sacraments, and special parish and school events. And, pray God, that day will come very, very soon!”