Pope Francis listens during an Advent meditation Dec. 4 in the Vatican audience hall. (Vatican Media/CNS)
Pope Francis listens during an Advent meditation Dec. 4 in the Vatican audience hall. (Vatican Media/CNS)
" I am not simply bowing to the state, as some have suggested. I am following the science as best I can understand it and making these directives my own. " Archbishop Alexander Sample On balancing concerns for spiritual and physical health
Archbishop Alexander Sample on Dec. 4 urged Catholics to view the coronavirus surge soberly and follow safety protocols, including the wearing of face masks and keeping a safe distance.

“This pandemic is very serious business, and it’s getting worse as I speak,” the archbishop said in a livestreamed weekly talk from his home chapel. Almost 3,000 people tuned in.

Oregon’s infections have continue to spike, with more than 2,000 new cases on the day the archbishop spoke. That’s up from about 350 cases per day during the summer surge of the potentially deadly virus.

Ten priests in the Archdiocese of Portland have contracted COVID-19. A 46-year-old priest was close to death but recovered. A 39-year-old clergyman was put on a ventilator for a time.

“Our health care system is on the verge of being overwhelmed,” said the archbishop. He urged everyone to pray for health care workers who are being stretched to limits of endurance.

Responding to critics who want him to defy public health directives, the archbishop said he is responsible for both the spiritual and physical well-being of the people — as well as the common good. He has objected to directives when he felt churches are big treated unfairly, but he has never flouted the orders.

“I am not simply bowing to the state, as some have suggested,” he said. “I am following the science as best I can understand it and making these directives my own.”

On Dec. 3, state policy changed, allowing churches to welcome worshippers based on the size of the buildings. That allows more people in church than at restaurants and bars. “That is a huge step forward and something we have been advocating for all along,” the archbishop said. Because many Catholics are still most comfortable participating in Mass online, churches now can welcome all who want to attend.

The archbishop said it still makes sense for elders and those who have compromised immune systems to worship from home. He also made it clear that no Catholic who stays away from Mass for fear of the virus should be besmirched.

The archbishop explained that Gov. Kate Brown and her staff are people of good will who sincerely are trying to protect public health and want to see an end to the pandemic.

Some churchgoers have objected that stores in Oregon are allowed more people than churches. The archbishop explained that the distinction has a scientific backing: Shoppers pass one another briefly and come and go at different times through the day. In church, worshippers sit together for an hour, arriving and departing simultaneously. Disagree or agree with that standard, at least it’s a step above the small and arbitrary numbers of past directives, the archbishop said.

He quoted Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who has urged healthy Catholics to return to Mass but also has recognized that reasonable health protocols are important to observe. The archbishop also pointed out that Pope Francis has been wearing a mask frequently.

The archbishop said the state has allowed more people into worship because churches have not been sites of virus outbreak. At the archbishop’s orders, Catholic churches have required masks, kept people distant and sanitized facilities often.

The archbishop has consulted with local Catholic doctors who have unanimously advised masks, distancing and hand washing.

“God gives us both faith and reason,” the archbishop said. “God expects us to use both. We believe in the science when it has been demonstrated to us.”

The archbishop said that the wearing of face masks at Mass is a demonstration of charity, showing love for God and neighbor. He reminded listeners that many people spread the virus without knowing they are infected.

He called upon Catholic social teaching and its push for the common good. He also evoked the image of earlier generations of Americans who sacrificed during the Great Depression and World War II for a greater cause.