By Christopher White, National Correspondent
MANHATTAN — While New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may believe there’s no comparison between reopening houses of worship and allowing for mass protests, Msgr. Kieran Harrington, rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, Prospect Heights, strongly disagrees and says the time to reopen churches is now.
Last week, the mayor was asked why he allowed for protests against police brutality and for racial justice and insisted on churches to remain limited in their services due to COVID-19 restrictions.
He told reporters that “when you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as to the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”
“I don’t think he gets to make that decision,” said Msgr. Harrington, who is also the president and chairman of DeSales Media Group, the parent company of The Tablet, adding that the Constitution is the ultimate referendum on that, not the mayor.
In an interview with The Tablet, Msgr. Harrington said he watched the almost nine-minute long video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd, an unarmed black man, with “outrage.”
“It was appalling to watch the life drain out of him,” said Msgr. Harrington.
Since then, mass protests have taken place throughout the country with calls for a national reckoning over systemic racial injustices. City officials have allowed them to take place while, at the same time, expecting religious institutions to adhere to strict social distancing measures and limiting the number of individuals that can attend services, something Msgr. Harrington believes is a double standard.
“My wanting to open the churches does not mean I’m not supportive of what they’re protesting against. I want to open the church precisely because I believe black lives matter,” said Msgr. Harrington, noting that many people see prayer and Mass as especially urgent in light of rising national tensions. “For me, the act of prayer is an act greater than political protest. It’s why I became a priest.”
Msgr. Harrington believes many Catholics feel similarly to him and he’s encouraging them to call 311, the city’s information and complaint line, to voice such concerns to the mayor.
“This is about the right to assemble and the right to worship,” Msgr. Harrington said. “God is being ignored by public officials, just because they may not be people of faith and feel the same need to return to Church.”
He went on to fault political leaders of both parties for “fomenting political divisions” in the country by not respecting people of faith and viewing their demands to return to church with the same sense of urgency.
Msgr. Harrington pointed to the mayor’s decision in April to send in NYPD officials to break up a crowd of an estimated 2,000 Orthodox Jews at a funeral for a rabbi who had died of the coronavirus but then allowed thousands of people to “stand shoulder to shoulder” in Brooklyn over the last week.
“What was the difference between the scenes in Williamsburg [with the Hasidic community] and that of what was taking place in Cadman Plaza?,” asked Msgr. Harrington, saying in his view, the mayor is willing to allow one group to continue their large gatherings because it aligns with a national political movement that de Blasio supports.
The press office for the Mayor of the City of New York did not respond to The Tablet’s
request for comment.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said he understands Msgr. Harrington’s position. “It is painful for one to be cut off from the rituals and sacraments of one’s religious faith,” Rabbi Hirschfeld told The Tablet. “There is a deep hunger to return. I can sympathize with that feeling.”
Msgr. Harrington also faulted the mayor and the governor for blanket policies allowing only a limited number of individuals to be in a church at a particular time.
“The situation at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral in Brooklyn or that of St. Patrick’s is a lot different than a storefront church,” Msgr. Harrington said. “If people are going to be allowed to continue to protest, they also have a right to continue to enter a church and pray.”
“I want the mayor or the governor to explain the difference,” he said.
To read the latest updates regarding coronavirus concerns in the Brooklyn Diocese, go to https://thetablet.org/coronavirus.