Predsjednik HBK zadarski nadbiskup Želimir Puljić
In the context of limiting the spread of COVID-19, on Thursday, March 19, the archbishop of Zadar, Msgr. Želimir Puljić, president of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, was interviewed on Croatan Catholic Radio (HKR) about the provisional regulations adopted by the CCB, which were to go into effect on Friday, March 20, until further notice.
The adopted Church regulations will be in force as long as the civil ordinances remain effect in Croatia, which means for thirty days. Therefore, during Holy Week and Easter, there will be no liturgical celebrations by priests with congregants. “We cannot get around the civil regulations. When they cease to be in effect, so will the Church regulations,” said Msgr. Puljić, who spoke of the need for the mindful celebration of Holy Week and Easter. “‘The prohibitions shall be in effect until further notice.’ This means that we cannot do anything while the civil regulations are in effect but we shall be joined in fellowship via the radio and in other ways, to comfort people. All are urged now to do something, not just to fold their hands and wait but to truly celebrate Easter in the family. To commemorate the Way of the Cross in the family, to pray the Rosary in the family. Everything that happens in the parish will now be transferred to the family. The family has, in a sense, assumed the central role in the Church community, the spirit of the Church. I think that this is a wonderful opportunity for us to become aware of what families are, because woe to the Church without families. In this context, the more families that partake in the Church spirit, the spirit of prayer, the spirit of composure, the spirit of reading the Holy Scriptures, the spirit of everything that the Church offers, the stronger the Church will be,” said Msgr. Puljić.
The archbishop admitted that as a man and, particularly, as a bishop, it had not been easy for him to stand behind these regulations. “This was a difficult decision for me. Given the spirit and gravity of this challenging moment, particularly for us bishops and priests who bear the weight of pastoral responsibility for the souls entrusted to us, it was not easy for us but we had to do it. We had to because we recognize the gravity of the situation, not only in our country but throughout Europe. We are particularly shaken by the situation in Italy, which is on its knees. It is the same with Austria, Germany and other regions where this vicious contagious virus is raging. It was difficult for us bishops to make such a decision but I think there was no other way except to help limit the number of sufferers as much as possible, to help in these general circumstances, in which we must express our gratitude to all those who are striving so courageously and expertly to battle this invisible enemy,” said Msgr. Puljić.
“These regulations do not signify the distancing, separation or prohibition of something that no one can forbid us, which is our pastoral love, our prayer, our connection with those who have been entrusted to us. The regulations limit and isolate us but today there are excellent means that make it possible for us to be close to people,” noted the archbishop, mentioning that he would send a letter to this effect to the priests of the Archdiocese of Zadar. He encourages all priests “to be even more connected” with the people. In order to keep in touch with the people, there are various technical options, e-mail, social networks, contacts via cell phone. “We shall not be receiving people in our offices or visiting people in the field, the sick and the elderly, or on other occasions. Now we shall turn toward people in another way. Our people expect this. I urge our people not to separate themselves from us but to call us and say ‘Reverend, what should I do? Reverend, will you pray for me?’ Or the priest should call his associates, his faithful, and ask them how they are. Now we need such connections even more than under regular circumstances,” said the president of the CCB.
Together with the human support that priests are being called to provide to people, it is necessary to urge all people to join together in a prayer chain, “so that we can become united in this affliction by addressing our prayers to the One who guides the history of individuals, people and nations,” said Archbishop Puljić.
He noted that he had initiated the broadcast of a religious program on Radio Zadar in which he would personally participate each day, as several other Croatian bishops had done in various ways, in order to address the people via the media. “It is important for the bishops and priests to give people a word of encouragement and to pray with them. Perhaps this is also a blessed moment for our families, who are largely living under stressful circumstances. Sometimes the father is absent from the family for a long time, working somewhere abroad, or far from home. Perhaps now they will be together. This is a moment for them to discover the beauty and greatness of family togetherness, to talk to each other and, particularly to find the courage to pray to God,” stressed the archbishop. He suggested that families should take prayer books out of drawers and use them “for moments of prayer when the father, mother and children pray together to the Lord and give thanks for the gift of life, for the gift of family, for the gift of work, for the gift of the city and everything that God has given us. At this moment, we should especially pray: Protect us, Lord, from the plague, hunger, war and all other contagious viruses,” urged Msgr. Puljić.
Regarding the regulation that the Sacrament of Confession cannot be celebrated until further notice, except when death is imminent, the archbishop said: “This is not a prohibition of confession but a precautionary measure. Confession is being postponed. We hope that this will not last long and, in this context, everything is being delayed. Each of us can humbly repent at every moment. The Lord forgives. These circumstances are such due to the potential exposure to danger. All the sacraments, sacramentals and devotions where large gatherings are required, are being postponed until further notice. It was terribly painful for us to make such a decision. However, bearing in mind the gravity of the situation we are witnessing in our country and surrounding countries, we are not the first or the only ones (who have adopted such a regulation concerning confession, for example). I ask the faithful to understand that this is in no way signifies a belittling of the sacraments. Indeed, we are proud that our people confess, we are joyful and grateful to God that they have faith. In situations when they feel the need of God’s mercy, they should humbly repent and pray to the Lord, as we do every night before going to sleep. We make a contrite confession and repent. God accepts this as our will and desire to be cleansed. We cannot be separate from the circumstances in which we find ourselves and avoid all the potential snares of this dangerous virus. It is better to follow the precautionary measures. The only way is to minimize our exposure as much as possible and not give the virus a chance. We have the responsibility not only to fight against the virus but also to protect our health. All the regulations should be understood in the light of our desire and need to rid ourselves of this virus as soon as possible, with the exception of confessions when death is imminent, when the priest must risk exposure. However, it is necessary to expose ourselves as little as possible,” said Puljić, expressing the opinion that “the faithful, as part of the Church, cannot be a separate society within society. Regarding the relationship between the Church and society, we are a free Church in a free society. However, these are truly specific circumstances in which there are health hazards, which must be addressed. Otherwise, we are exposing both ourselves and others. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the health and social guidelines.”
The archbishop also commented on the impossibility for priests to celebrate the sacraments together with the faithful, and said that the sacraments are a significant reality in the life of the Church. Sacraments as community celebrations are now prohibited. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible graces. However, apart from the invisible graces that occur through the sacraments, there are many other areas in which God operates and in which God is present, through which he bestows his graces. Jesus himself said: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, gathered in prayer, when you cry out to heaven, I am with you. You are not alone.” At this moment, owing to potential dangers, it is not possible for the congregation to celebrate the sacraments, to assemble as the Church and celebrate the Mass. The Mass is the strength of the Church. The Church celebrates the Eucharist, the Eucharist builds the Church, but at this moment such gatherings are truly risky. Therefore, we have accepted the decision that all the sacraments, all the devotions that people make, which are so important to them, especially during the holy Lenten season, will be postponed until later. This is an exceptional situation but there is no need to panic. The best thing at this moment is to collect ourselves and follow the health guidelines that can help us, but do not deprive us of grace. God acts even under such circumstances. God is present. God helps us. We need him but he also needs us to collaborate with him. God not only acts through the sacraments but also in other ways. God is present through the reading of his words. Read what God tells you in the Holy Scriptures. This is an opportunity when we have more time, so let us use it in a different way. Let us receive God’s graces. Let us not waste time. In this context, I encourage priests to urge the faithful, via electronic media and by cell phone, to use this time for reading, conversation and praying together. Those attending religious education classes should pick up their textbooks and continue reading. Schoolchildren, besides speaking with catechists and priests, should also discuss their lessons a little with their parents. May this be a source of conversation but also growth in faith,” said Msgr. Puljić.
The archbishop was also asked to comment on the fact that many believers are saddened by the bishops’ regulations and there have been divisions in the unity between the lay faithful and clergy, that is, the pastors of the Church, whose regulations many accept with difficulty and disappointment, as if the Church were pandering to the world. “If such division is present, it worries and disturbs me. We are celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph, who did not speak very much. In his silence, in his composure, he was able to hear what God was saying. Unfortunately, the noise of the world and the noise around us have distracted us and we often react anxiously to some decisions and conclusions that are adopted. The decisions adopted by the bishops are not against anyone. They include something that is very important at this moment. They are especially not against any devotions, God forbid, or against any spirituality that some practice. They are serious decisions and, in this context, we are sorry if there are some who have to be convinced of something that is so clear and done with love. A child whose father says to him: ‘My son, don’t go there,” may momentarily find it strange that his father has forbidden him to do something but he will understand. However, I would like him to understand at this moment that his father, who is devoted to him, who loves him, who cares for him, issues regulations and instructions for the good of the child. It is necessary to enter into the reasoning for such decisions and regulations and not become irrational. Instead, we should collect ourselves and use these moments, which are truly difficult, as our opportunity to grow in faith, our opportunity to grow in fellowship, both in the family and the nation. Therefore, I do not need to address all those who make problems or even question the faith of the bishops. I am not pleased to hear this but I would like people to realize that these regulations are instructions from fathers who care for the people entrusted to them. I think that this is a very serious time, a challenging time, and a dangerous time due to the severity of the virus. However, we must not lose our heads. We must not succumb to the panic that, unfortunately, is sometimes spread by the media. Instead, we must be optimists. We must spread optimism,” said the president of the CCB.
The media have a special role and mission here. “In this context, our Catholic media in particular are called to spread optimism and help people focus upon what is important, which is not to forget the dimension that leads us upward, toward God, who guides the history of individuals and nations, and for people to discover the beauty of being together again, read the Holy Scriptures, converse not only about mundane matters but also about the important, existential issues of our relationships, our love, our intolerance and everything that troubles us in life, in order to improve. Lent, which we will not celebrate as we have celebrated until now, is an ideal opportunity for us to remember that we are called to perfection and that, if we cannot confess something, at least in our conscience we can say: ‘I was not good. I need to be better. I have not been the way I should be toward my wife and children and I need to be better.’ May this time be an incentive to be better. In this context, may this time of trial be an opportunity,” said Msgr. Puljić.
During this time, when death is being intensely discussed, there is also the opportunity to proclaim man’s eternal life, resurrection. “In this context, the great saints, whom we venerate as our advocates and helpers in all adversities, were often guided by the idea that life is transient. We have been given a time and it will come to an end. Saints often had a skull on their desks. There was no fear. We today, unfortunately, rarely think about death. Lent is a time when we sometimes think about our own death in the context of Jesus’ death. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are not without purpose in this existence. The Lord has determined a specific time. This is your opportunity. You will live fifty, seventy years, it is not important how many, but this is your opportunity to gain eternal life. You are not eternal on this earth but you are a passerby, who, with your own work, honesty, engagement, prayer and sacramental life, can gain eternal life. We are blessed if we are aware of this. It helps us to grow in holiness,” said Msgr. Puljić.
The archbishop noted that the current situation is reminiscent of a state of war. “I personally and all of us bear the burden of responsibility at this moment, and have survived difficult times. It was not easy for us when we were confronted with refugees, suffering, ruins and many dead, although we endured it. We had faith in God. We bring the bishops’ regulations before Our Lady of Good Health, before our heavenly protectress. In addition to our caution and regulations, we pray to the Almighty and also pray for the intercession of our Mother and Advocate, the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom Jesus left to us on Calvary. During Lent, we contemplate Jesus’ passion and death, through which he redeemed and saved us. One of the beautiful moments during his suffering was when he saw his mother and his disciple John beneath the cross. As Jesus departed this world, he did not leave us alone. He says to John: ‘Behold your mother. I entrust my mother to you.’ In this way, he said that to you who believe in my resurrection, who will live from my passion, death and the graces I give you, here is my Mother, who will take care of you. Since then, Mary has become our Advocate and our Mother,” said the archbishop of Zadar.
The president of the Croatian Conference of Bishops said that the bishops and priests would try to reach the people via the radio and other means. “In this sense, I also urge Croatian Catholic Radio to offer some programs to enable people to follow the spiritual aspect, the Way of the Cross, and everything that happens during Lent,” said Msgr. Puljić and noted that CCR is already doing an exemplary job in the present situation, with additional broadcasts of Masses and other devotions.