Montreal Catholics mobilize prayer vigil for religious freedom in wake of COVID restrictions

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Photo by Linda Couture

By Quinton Amundson

MONTREAL, (The Catholic Register) –  Evelyn Campbell was shocked when the Quebec government suddenly mandated that all places of worship impose a vaccine passport system as of December 20.

“The bishops were blindsided by the news too,” said Campbell, the catechetical leader for Corpus Christi Parish, one of the 192 parishes of the Archdiocese of Montreal. “They were not aware at all that this was coming.”

Now, congregants aged 14 to 75 must show proof of vaccination to enter, worship and receive the sacraments. This decree will remain operational throughout the province until further notice. It’s part of a widespread effort to tackle an upsurge in COVID-19 cases. The province is returning to the strict restrictions that had been in place when COVID first reared its head.

This comes at a time when parishes had only within the past few month been widely re-opened — though still with some health restrictions — after being shut down completely, in Quebec and nationwide, to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Campbell, and members of her parish community, including Anna Farrow, executive director of the English Speaking Catholic Council in Greater Montreal, felt a need to show their displeasure with the new rules.

Farrow and Campbell coordinated a 40-hour prayer and fasting vigil that started on Zoom at 6 p.m. December 20 and ended with a prayer service for religious freedom on the steps of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral while the 12:10 p.m. Mass was celebrated inside December 22. Campbell says about 25 people were outside the basilica on Cathedral Street. She coordinated with the cathedral in advance so that a minister could come outside to distribute the Eucharist.

The short-notice, two-night virtual gathering attracted participants from Australia and the United States. Vigil participants asked for “intercession of Our Lady, the English martyrs, the martyrs of the Vendée and the Mexican Revolution.”

“We just felt that irrespective of vaccination status, everybody should be allowed to pray and to worship at the liturgies,” said Campbell. “Many of us volunteers in the parish were really upset with the government introducing this mandate, so our response is that we need to pray about this.”

Some vigil participants are fully vaccinated but have chosen to not attend any in-person Masses on a matter of principle while this mandate is ongoing. Campbell wants to make it clear that these actions were not a protest against the archdiocese or Archbishop Christian Lépine. And she encourages people to seek understanding of this situation beyond vaccination status.

“This is not about vaccination status. Sadly, that has become pervasive in many people’s minds is that ‘well, you’re unvaccinated, you should just choose to get vaccinated and you’ll be allowed to come in.’ We need to remind people that needing a government-issued document and I.D. to enter church should be seen as repugnant by everybody. I just don’t think that’s right,” she said.

A weekly prayer Zoom call going forward is a possibility, said Campbell. She also wants advocates for religious freedom to write the archdiocese and the government.

Archdiocese of Montreal communications director Erika Jacinto said the archdiocese is trying to strike a balance while responding to the latest uptick in COVID numbers brought on by the Omicron variant.

“Since the very beginning of the pandemic, our churches have scrupulously followed the various health measures that the government has applied and, by doing so, have helped to prevent any spread of the virus in our church gatherings,” Jacinto wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “As is the experience in Canada and elsewhere, imposing restrictions is never popular and balancing the needs of various groups and interests with the public concern foremost in mind is fraught with difficulties.”

Jacinto stated that Lépine is also demonstrating solidarity and championing unity among the faithful by adding 10 outdoor Masses for December 24 and 25 so vaccinated and unvaccinated parishioners can celebrate Christmas together.

As for the prayer vigil outside the cathedral, Jacinto wrote this action is in alignment with the character of an online message Lépine posted on the archdiocese website entitled “The door of the manger is always open.” Lépine stated in the letter: “Defeating this pandemic means having and maintaining a loving view toward the other, whether vaccinated or not. Our battle is against the pandemic. It is a battle for health. It is not a battle against anyone.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec archdiocese is taking a different tact to the new restrictions and the Omicron variant surging through the province. Cardinal Gerald Lacroix has suspended all collective celebrations from December 23 through January 10.

“By refraining from calling risky gatherings, we are choosing to make a strong gesture of solidarity with vulnerable people as well as with the staff of the entire health network and all those who help fight the pandemic,” wrote Lacroix in a letter to priests and congregants.

“Despite all the efforts already made in our churches to limit the spread of the virus, it is becoming increasingly risky to hold gatherings without compromising the health of all. With the possibility of further restrictions imposed by government authorities and a few days before the holiday, we had to make a decision without delay, given the preparations underway.”

It is Lacroix’s hope that “this celebration of Christmas, once again more stripped-down, unites us more to the Child of the manger, recognized by the poor shepherds who spent the night in the fields.”

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