Closed for prayer. In Los Ángeles, Chile, authorities used Covid-19 as an excuse to shut down all churches. On 29 March 2020, health officials taped over the front gate of Santa María de los Ángeles Cathedral. They did the same to all Catholic churches in the city. On each door, they left a notice prohibiting the use of the churches entirely.
Earlier in March, the government had issued its official action in light of the corona crisis. It gave directions on how different businesses and public establishments should function during this time where contagion presented a risk to public health. The instructions forbid any sort of activity, including those of religious character that constituted an “agglomeration”. This term remained undefined. Commercial venues could operate as long as they kept numbers below 50 people inside their premises.
Bishop Felipe Bacarreza, upon receiving this government order, advised his priests of the Diocese of Los Ángeles that they were not barred from celebrating mass and giving the faithful access to the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, insofar as it was done in line with the directives. In his instructions, he mentioned that particularly in a time of crisis, such as this, people must be able to practice their faith. He said that mass and private prayer inside churches must not and could not be forbidden.
The Bishop’s letter advising his priests became public along with a picture of a mass that took place after the government instructions had been given. Overzealous social media inquisitors became outraged, demanding authorities take action to forbid mass as necessary to fight the epidemic. This is what prompted health officials to tape up the front doors of all churches in the city of Los Ángeles.
Shortly before Holy Week this abusive measure was challenged at court. A writ of protection was filed on behalf of lay members of the Diocese. They asked for an emergency injunction to reopen churches. On April 7, the Court of Appeal, claiming that the government’s actions in the crisis were not subject to judicial control and that no fundamental rights had been violated through the forced closure of churches, dismissed this. On April 24, the Supreme Court also rejected the appeal.
With no court left to appeal to, the local organization Comunidad y Justicia, with the help of ADF International, penned an appeal to the press. On May 1, they published a joint op-ed in Chile’s leading newspaper. It criticized both the government and the Supreme Court for the violation of the right to freely practice one’s faith and the refusal to adequately provide protection which followed. Upon reading the article, members of the National Congress of Chile were outraged by the abusive actions of the health officials and immediately contacted the authors. Following a meeting with them the politicians took up the issue.
On May 2, only a day after the article was published, the same health officials went back to the Cathedral and in the presence of Bishop Bacarreza, they revoked the shutdown order for all the churches across the city and removed the tape. The doors of the churches opened once more.
On that day, Bishop Felipe Bacarreza wrote to his clergy, “the overturning of this abusive measure is owed to some lay members whom, with generosity and selflessness offered to defend the right of the faithful to live out their faith and the right of the Church to offer the means for this. Let us pray for them so that the Lord will bless them and their families, as a way of thanking them.”