" We need a renewed sense of the common good. " Msgr. Patrick Brennan Pastor of St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Three Northwest Portland religious leaders declared May 14 that people of faith must advocate for human life above economic considerations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel, Msgr. Patrick Brennan of St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Dean Nathan LeRud of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral offered a May 14 web presentation that explored society’s responses to COVID-19.

“We need a renewed sense of the common good,” said Msgr. Brennan, criticizing politicization of the pandemic. “One can hardly deal with the needs of people without it turning into a political issue instead of a humanitarian issue. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to show greater love.”

Msgr. Brennan said the 10 Protestant churches that sued to overturn Oregon’s stay-at-home orders made an error. “Lives are at stake,” he said. “That is the most important thing.”

Rabbi Cahana told viewers the stay-at-home orders and crowd limits were not meant to pick on religion, but to follow science and save lives. “We need a moral voice to say that,” he said, expressing fear that some Oregonians seem to have tired of caring about others and are focusing more on their own needs.

Dean LeRud said that before the pandemic, people of faith could get by with “flimsy solidarity” but now face concrete choices over siding with people on the margins. With so many households out of work, faith communities have a lot to do, Msgr, Brennan added.

The three agreed that the pandemic has revealed inequalities in society.

“We don’t want to just go back,” Rabbi Cahana said. “We can’t turn our backs and pretend we don’t see. We have to remember and carry the lessons forward. With God’s help it will be changed for the better.”

The men said that religion can help society remember and process the fear and sorrow of pandemic. “I hope we grieve this appropriately,” Dean LeRud said. “If we just agree to move on and forget, I think we as religious traditions will have dodged the ball.”

The faith leaders reported that their online worship is drawing more eyes than in-person services did before the pandemic.

“When there is a lot of anxiety, one of the things we turn to is ritual and tradition,” Dean LeRud said. “People are looking for ways of finding connection in virtual ways that are meaningful for them as a way to remind them that the rug has not totally been pulled out from under them.”

But Msgr. Brennan and Dean LeRud said that the incarnational and sacramental nature of Christianity mean that online gatherings are lacking. The Christian church includes incense, holy oils, bread, wine, embraces to signify and make real God’s presence.

“Right now, as a culture, touch is dangerous,” said Dean LeRud. “That puts Christianity at a pretty profound disadvantage.”

“It’s nice to have livestreaming, but we are people of touch and taste and smell,” Msgr. Brennan added. “You cannot celebrate a sacrament through livestreaming.”

For Catholics, the monsignor said, Mass is about much more than fellowship. It makes present Christ’s saving sacrifice. Catholics have told him that with Mass online they are watching, not participating.

By contrast, said Rabbi Cahana, leading Jews in online prayer from his living room has been comfortable in more ways than one. Jews have considered the home the center of worship since the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed two millennia ago.

Rabbi Cahana explained that for Jews, what is sacred is not sacrament but time. Jews remember and then focus on how they have changed and what they will become, he said.

Both Rabbi Cahana and Dean LeRud said they hesitate to hold services in their houses of worship when, under state law, only 25 faithful can come. Allowing the privilege only to some gives the wrong message, they said.

Msgr. Brennan said Catholics’ intense yearning for Eucharist meant that waiting longer would not work, and so Catholic churches reopened May 9, abiding by state regulations and having worshippers sign up to attend on a first-come first in basis or by random selection.

The men agreed that web presentations in religious communities should allow for interaction and participation. That offers a kind of safe intimacy, said Rabbi Cahana, who celebrated a bat mitzvah this month online.

“How beautiful that families and friends were right there. Everyone felt very, very present,” the rabbi added. “We are going to have to find ways to incorporate this technology more and more as we go forward.”

To see the entire presentation, click here.