The drastic measures announced by Switzerland’s dioceses to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic nipped in the bud the hope that many faithful there had — to be able to gather again for the celebrations of the Holy Week.

While bishops’ conferences of bishops in Italy, France and Spain — which are all on lockdown — initially suspended all public Masses until the beginning of April, hoping that the spread of the virus will be contained by then, the Swiss Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg decided to suspend the celebrations of all public Masses until April 30.

In a previous press release, the biggest diocese of French-speaking Switzerland originally chose May 15 as the deadline for the suspension of Masses and then reduced it, after the nation’s Federal Council announced more precise national directives on March 13.

While all Swiss dioceses were initially free to implement appropriate measures, according to the regulations in place in their cantons (the member states of the Switzerland’s federal confederation), all of them eventually aligned with these directives.

This caution on the part of public and Church authorities is meant to help avoid a national lockdown, as the number of confirmed cases with coronavirus is rapidly growing across the country.

“In Fribourg and Lausanne, gatherings of more than 50 people were already forbidden until April 30 when we issued our March 13 communiqué and in most parts of Switzerland, gatherings of over 100 people were already forbidden,” Bishop Charles Morerod told the Register, explaining that adapting the Church’s activities to the safety measures taken in the territory by civil authorities seemed to be the wisest and most responsible thing to do. “Under normal circumstances, there are Masses during the week that gather more than 100 people, so, if we had canceled Sunday masses only, it would have caused a stronger influx of people during the week.”

Thus, until April 30, Masses will be celebrated behind closed doors in the whole country. Daily Mass is being broadcast live on the bishoprics or parishes’ YouTube channels or Facebook accounts.  

“Some people were scandalized by such a decision,” Bishop Morerod acknowledged, adding that if it is true that during the spread of the bubonic plague that they continued to gather in prayer and to celebrate Mass, “there were from 50 to 100 million deaths at that time.”

“It is not easy to take a decision that will contribute to make people die,” he said.

The bishop of the biggest diocese of Switzerland, who is the former rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, also noted he continually invites the faithful to meditate on daily Bible readings and pray the rosary, to rediscover the strength of spiritual communion.

 

More Support Requested

For some local faithful, however, the support provided by Church authorities for such a long period of time is not enough.

“I can understand the necessity to avoid the danger of infection by forbidding popular gatherings, but simple online guides are insufficient to enable the faithful to live this Lent period properly,” Mariella Bianchi, an Italian Catholic living in Geneva, told the Register.

In particular, she is convinced that in such an unprecedented situation, Church leaders in general should send a stronger message by inviting to frequent times of fasting, prayer and penitence.

“I am not seeing this kind of message much,” she said, “and in these troubled times, our pastors should communicate more than ever.”

While referring to the religious initiatives flourishing in Italy to face the crisis and provide alternatives such as online catechesis, groups of prayer, catechism class for children, she regrets the lack of a long-term plan for the faithful in Switzerland, a plan that would help fill this long period of time without the Eucharist.

Yet, as the quick evolution of the situation in the country forces priests to adapt from day to day, some of them are deploying a lot of energy in order not to leave the faithful alone. This is the case, for instance, for Father Dominique Fabien Rimaz, priest of the Pastoral Unity of Our Lady of Fribourg and chaplain of the Hospital of Fribourg.

Since the beginning of the crisis, he has been offering spiritual and psychological support to many faithful, especially those who are lonely or sick, mostly by phone and skype.

“We are trying to diligently align with the strict measures that the federal office of public health has taken, but at the same time, we are striving to remain fully available for our parishioners,” he told the Register, noting that all churches can remain open.

 

Respecting Safety Rules

Every Thursday at 8pm until the end of this health crisis, all the Catholic and Protestant faithful of the country have been invited to pray and put candles in their windows as a sign of communion.

Although individual communion and perpetual adoration were still allowed until March 19, from that date forward only confession remains possible, and the safety distance must be maintained.

“We must show inventiveness while respecting safety rules in order not to put anyone in danger,” Fabien Rimaz said, adding that faith must not make people sink into naïve optimism, ignoring the serious risk of this virus. “In the words of Thomas Aquinas, ‘grace presupposes nature,’ which means that we cannot ignore human rules of protection.”