Was Mass suspension a mistake in Hong Kong?

A missionary of the Paris Foreign Missions Society doubts if suspending liturgy was an erroneous decision
Was Mass suspension a mistake in Hong Kong?

Father Nicolas de Francqueville of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (center) with his altar servers at a Mass before Hong Kong Diocese suspended Masses on Feb. 13 as a measure to check the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo supplied)

As the coronavirus epidemic broke out in December, an atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia began to sweep Hong Kong, creating panic among both Christians and non-Christians alike.

The streets and shops are now deserted, and those who go out wear a mask. Authorities have closed schools and universities until mid-March, while many now work from home to avoid travel and exposure.

Despite the tight measures introduced by Hong Kong authorities, the territory had reported 62 confirmed cases of infections, including two deaths, as of Feb. 19.

The Diocese of Hong Kong is also making efforts. It called for preventive measures such as wearing masks and washing hands with disinfectants. It has asked faithful to receive communion only by the hand rather than the tongue to avoid any possible contamination through saliva.

The diocese also imposed a two-week quarantine on all Catholics returning from abroad, including priests. But these measures seem insufficient to check the spread of the virus.

On Feb. 13, Cardinal John Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, announced the suspension of Masses in all parishes for two weeks in the diocesan area that covers the entire special administrative region of China.

Father Nicolas de Francqueville, a missionary of the Paris Foreign Missions Society in Hong Kong, said he was a bit disappointed about the move.

“I don’t really understand the effectiveness of this measure. There are people who say that the government has put a lot of pressure on Hong Kong Diocese to suspend all religious activities,” he said.

At the same time, he said, the diocese prefers not to take any risks. “The decision makers at diocesan level are assisted by doctors, and the precautions are taken in line with their advice.” 

Extreme caution 

This seemingly extreme caution can be explained by the high population density of Hong Kong, which has some 7.5 million people. As they say, the spirit of Hong Kong is rooted in the idea of protecting others. Foreseeing the worst is a human way of reacting to a dangerous situation. As a precautionary principle, it helps avoid harm or to minimize the effects of the danger.

However, "what's causing more fear is the reaction to the virus rather than the virus itself,” Father de Francqueville said.

“Was the decision of the diocese to suspend public Masses a mistake that could aggravate the panic situation among the faithful? In any case, with so many unknowns [with the virus situation], it is better to do too much than not do enough. The local Church is sailing on sight,” the priest said.

Hong Kong Catholics are not only fighting the spread of the virus but also having a spiritual battle, the priest said. They have two opposing feelings: the fear that paralyzes them, and the faith that encourages them to move forward.

The French missionary said he sees a real spiritual dilemma between the uncontrollable fear of contamination and the great faith of his parishioners. Faced with the quarantine measures of the diocese, Father de Francqueville finally decided to stay in Hong Kong with his parishioners despite being due to go to Thailand for a formation session. “Seeing the parishioners rejoice that I’m not leaving, I’m happy too,” he said. 

Despite his doubts about the diocesan measures, the priest expressed confidence in God: “If at times you can be disappointed and you don’t fully understand the usefulness of certain decisions, Providence is always there, and you must continue to give thanks in everything.”

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