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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Freedom to Worship God

To deal with a very serious medical emergencies, bishops and pastors collaborating with governmental official made some tough decisions about Easter celebrations this year. As a Catholic, not being able to participate in the flesh in the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter was a great sacrifice. I also believe, however, that God used this sacrifice and that He is at work in the world in a powerful way. That is why I look forward to the restoration of our right to worship God—as we develop ways to safely be with each other again in public, the first thing we need to do is praise God for his goodness to us. This act of worship would show the ascendancy of human dignity over the threat of disease and our courage as God's people in the face of catastrophic circumstances. In the coming weeks and months our society needs to rediscover the freedom to worship God. Though profound respect for experts is owed them for helping save many lives in this current crisis, there are other goods at stake that go beyond quelling fears and saving lives. Disease experts and political leaders do not get to make an absolute claim over how we should live—they have an important voice, but there are other voices that must be brought into the conversation. And it is evil to assume that when there is a grave threat, religious workers and ministers do not perform essential activities. There have been far too many chaplains who shed blood on battlefields for that hypothesis to be defended. As a bishop in the Southwest put it, if pot shops and liquor stores are essential, it is likely that some religious services are as well. Though prudence is required and mutual concern bids an abundance of caution, fear of death cannot be used as a tool to coerce compliance for the sake of a socio-medico experiments—and too much of the media has been given over to hysteric contradictions one day to the next. Listening to the experts is key, yet we need to have an honest assessment of their disagreements—and not quickly write-off those whose opinion does not match a politically expedient point of view. In particular, to discern how best to restore the freedom to worship, religious leaders and government officials need the sober and simple truth, not meaningless conjecture. We are at a point where we need to admit that in some cases some decisions were made on the basis of conjecture that ought now be reassessed. This act of humility opens a horizon of better decisions. There is a great need, not only social and psychological, but also spiritual, for political leaders and government officials to restore religion to its rightful place in our society as soon as it may be done as safely as possible. Among the decisions that were made, some of the limits placed on the pastoral care of the sick need to be looked at. So too we should consider whether there are not responsible ways for the faithful to gather for worship—at least in limited ways. Religious freedom and human dignity are threatened when some experts and leaders presume that nothing is lost to a society when it must sacrifice public worship. When police are sent to ticket Churchgoers who are otherwise practicing social distancing and taking other precautions, something is amiss. When the most looming concern is not how to provide the spiritual care that people need in the midst of this crisis but instead how to ration resources or restore the economy, something is out of wack. Men do not live by bread alone... and any society that believes otherwise will never hold together. Society opens itself to the gravest forms of abuse when those with power believe that not only during this crisis but afterward public prayer is too much of a health threat to allow. If someone charges that religious fanatics do great harm, I would charge that fanatics without religion do worse. Contrary to the prejudice of many, religion is not a private affair. It is something for the public good. When we relegate the worship of God to the privacy of our homes, the very heart of our culture is vulnerable to being lost. Put differently, our society risks diseases far worse than death when its people are deprived of the healing Word of God. Indeed, God does not need our worship—but we need to worship God. His love is better than life and not to render Him His due is not really to live at all - for without worship we only exist... and man cannot long bear a meaningless existence. Piety is no more a dispensable character trait for a man than it is for a nation. If during times of war or extreme emergency public worship must be suspended, its absence over a longer period of time always has lasting consequences for society that are not easily dealt with. That is why, as plans are advanced to restart the economy, governmental leaders should be also working with religious leaders on how to restore public worship and open up the right of access to it. More than that, a good leader should not only ask God in his private prayer on behalf of the people for His help, that leader should be first in line in those places of public worship to show the citizens how important it is that we thank the Lord for the great mercy already shown us as a people. We are religious beings who need to worship God, not only as individuals, but as communities in social solidarity. We do not come to praise God as alienated individuals seeking some therapeutic mental hygiene. We come out of mutual concern, to build each other up, to share a word of hope, to help provide a little guidance for the next step each one will have to take, and that we will all need to take together. Yet, we come together for something more than ourselves, to participate in something beyond the preservation of our own lives, to share in something that helps us get out of ourselves for a little while and enter into a place where we might thank Him who has been so good to us. Worship is a social reality because God is interpersonal—He not only works in the interior of the heart but in the exigencies of the public square. He is the Lord of encounter—not only in private prayer, but in a community that humbly seeks His aid. Thus, worship is most fully expressed when we are bound together, one with the other, in a solidarity of faith and fellowship. This need is not the less in pandemics. Yes... the technology has helped us pray and this is a grace. All the same, worship is a physical thing that we do with our bodies and voices in an actual place together with our neighbor. The place and time are set apart, sanctified for a great purpose—love of God and neighbor for the sake of God's glorious grace. And in that moment of worship, all that is most good, holy and true about being human is manifest—and something new begins.

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