Priest tells Christians to practice social distancing as Easter approaches: ‘One of the most generous things you can do’

A prominent Catholic priest called on the faithful to practice social distancing this week, the peak of Lent, in contrast to some other religious leaders who have called for churches to remain open as Easter approaches and the coronavirus spreads.

“One of the ways of being kind, in addition to doing good things for your neighbors, is to practice social distancing and stay home and not give other people the disease,” Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, told CNBC on Monday morning.

“I think that’s one of the most generous things you can do, which is to take those cautions to prevent infecting other people,” Martin said of Christians observing Lent, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday where many followers abstain from some of the comforts of their lives.

Martin has become a leading Catholic voice in the media. He wrote the book “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” and is an editor-at-large for America Magazine. He served as an advisor for director Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and appeared in the filmmaker’s Netflix-produced film “The Irishman.”

Not all religious leaders are offering the same advice as Martin. While many churches have opted to perform their services virtually, some have continued to hold gatherings despite warnings from the federal government and state leaders to avoid contact with other people.

Andrew Goethe and Kathryn Seawant protest outside the Godspeaker Calvary Chapel sanctuary, where Pastor Rob McCoy leaded a communion ceremony after an online Palm Sunday Service on April 5, 2020 in Thousand Oaks, California.

Apu Gomes | AFP | Getty Images

An increasing number of states have closed nonessential businesses and banned large gatherings of people to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Although President Donald Trump said late last month that he would like to see “packed churches” on Easter, the White House is now advising Americans to avoid groups of 10 or more people until at least the end of April.

But some of the states most vulnerable to the virus have carved out exemptions for religious institutions, where worshippers can gather en masse.

In Florida, for instance, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis listed “religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” as “essential” activities that can continue regardless of the statewide stay-home order he signed last Wednesday.

“There’s no reason why you couldn’t do a church service with people 10 feet away,” DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday.

“I think that in times like this, I think that the service that they’re performing is going to be very important for people, especially when you have difficult circumstances,” DeSantis said.

Local outlets in Florida reported that some Christians still attended church on Sunday.

Martin also gave advice for Americans who are struggling to cope as the coronavirus infects hundreds of thousands in the U.S., killing at least 9,600 people so far, and as unemployment hits sudden and record highs.

“If they’re religious, it’s looking for deeper meaning and remembering that God is with you through small acts of love that people show you,” he said. 

Martin cited the generosity of doctors, nurses and health-care workers “putting their bodies on the line for people” as evidence of “one way of God loving us.”

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