A Swedish cardinal has put COVID-imposed Mass restrictions in perspective, recalling that “there are greater sufferings in the world”.

– “Honduras, Armenia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Lebanon…”: remember people hit by natural disasters, war

Cardinal Anders Arborelius, the Bishop of Stockholm, made the observation in a November 23 pastoral letter addressing new restrictions that were to come into effect in Sweden Wednesday limiting most public gatherings to a maximum of eight people.

Arborelius said that the new limitations on social gatherings are for Catholics “a severe blow” that causes “great grief”. “Not least for me”, the Swedish prelate acknowledged, admitting that the blow that the restrictions suppose for a sense of community “is among the most painful I have experienced as a bishop”.

However, the cardinal stressed to the faithful that “it is important not to get caught up in our own worries during this pandemic”.

“In many parts of the world, people have been hit by greater sufferings: Honduras, Armenia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Lebanon”, he recalled, calling on Catholics to pray for the people in those countries – who have suffered everything from natural disasters to political unrest to full-blown war – and to “support them financially” with donations.

Closer to home, the cardinal urged the faithful to “pray for all the sick and their relatives and for all who suffer from isolation and loneliness”, and also invited them to have “great gratitude” for the country’s selfless and heroic healthcare workers.

“We are especially committed to assisting the poor and homeless who are the most vulnerable at this time”, Arborelius added, also asking Catholics to use the time of prayer, penance and reflection at Advent to “open up more to Christ and our neighbour”.

“We must take our call to repentance more seriously, so that we do not get caught up in selfishness, stinginess and self-pity”, the cardinal emphasised.

– Spike in cases means “this drastic step has to be taken, even if some have difficulty understanding it”

Cardinal Arborelius further relativised the coronavirus restrictions in Sweden by recalling that they are due to last just four weeks.

The prelate added that he had had a chance to explain to Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Culture Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke “how difficult it is for our believers not to be able to participate in services as usual”.

“At the same time, the spread of infection has increased so markedly that this drastic step has to be taken, even if some have difficulty understanding it”, Arborelius argued, adding that “together with all churches and congregations, we want to do everything we can to prevent the infection from spreading further”.

Though the Swedish authorities initially adopted for a no lockdown and “herd immunity” approach to controlling the pandemic, they have been forced to change course by a November spike in cases that has brought more than 50,000 new infections out of the country’s total to date of some 231,000, with 6,555 deaths.

– French Bishops lament “completely disrespectful” 30-person limit in liturgies

Cardinal Arborelius’ prudent approach to the pandemic restrictions on Mass attendance contrasts with that adopted by bishops in other places who are actively lobbying governments to return to liturgical business as usual as soon as possible, even at risk to public health.

An example of that more combative approach to COVID limitations is presently coming out of France, where the bishops November 24 said they were “disappointed and surprised” by a new government-imposed limit of 30 attendees at Masses, and also called for a more “realistic gauge” on participant numbers.

The French government’s Tuesday announcement of the 30-person limit in churches “is not at all in line with the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks with the ministers concerned”, the French Bishops’ Conference lamented in a statement.

“Indeed, this unrealistic and inapplicable measure is completely disrespectful of the reality of the religious practice of Catholics”, the prelates deplored.

Bishop of Châlons François Touvet went so far as to call the 30-person limit in a space like his cathedral “ridiculous and absurd”. Touvet wrote on Twitter that his cathedral “is 96 m long and 25m wide (40m transept) by 30m high. Total = 2500 m²: with 4m² per person, we can fit 600 people!”

“You have to learn to count!”, the bishop spat at authorities.

As of this Wednesday evening, France was still struggling in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, with 2.15 million cases in total and 50,237 deaths.

Novena’s full coverage of the COVID crisis:

“Unsung heroes of the pandemic”: Francis thanks doctors, nurses for “closeness”, “tenderness” and “professionalism”

Pope laments: “The virus is spreading unchecked, but we are unable to respond together”

Vatican tells governments on COVID restrictions: “Having access to the sacraments is an essential service”

Full text: Roman Catholic Church, World Council of Churches tackle “unprecedented challenge” of COVID-19 to pastoral care, ecumenism


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.