In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a Belgian bishop has recalled the need for the Church to obey State health directives.

– “How many times have I had to explain that it is not the religious leaders who decide on public health matters!”

Bishop of Tournai Guy Harpigny has published in the latest edition of diocesan publication Eglise de Tournai his experience of the coronavirus confinement, as Cathobel, the official website of the Catholic Church in Belgium, reports.

Concretely, in his contribution to the magazinem Harpigny reflects on his daily life from March 13 – the day the Belgian government imposed the first partial lockdown – to May 29.

In the bishop’s diary of the confinement, one detail stands out: his recounting, at length, of the back-and-forth negotiations between the Church and public health authorities regarding the resumption of public liturgical life with strict sanitary protocols – something which finally proved possible from June 8.

In that respect, Harpigny also expressed a certain frustration with those Catholics who were impatient to get back to in-person Masses before authorities gave the green-light to that, venting in his diary:

“How many times have I had to explain that it is not the religious leaders who decide on public health matters!”

In the Tournai bishops’ opinion, religious leaders too “must obey the laws, decrees and orders like all citizens”.

“A bishop who does not respect the directives of governments in health matters, by urging priests to celebrate the Eucharist ‘as before’, is overstepping his prerogatives”, Harpigny insisted.

He warned that that reckless bishop “might even be held responsible for the deaths of those infected with COVID-19 during these forbidden liturgies”.

Like other bishops who put public health above piety during the worst weeks of the pandemic, Harpigny faced blowback from Catholics in his diocese who accused him of banning Masses.

But the Tournai bishop revealed in his diary that his response to those irate believers was the example of Pope Francis, whom Harpigny recalled “respected sanitary measures in a very strict manner”.

“The Pope’s prayer on the Friday before Holy Week, alone in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, was, fortunately, a strong signal”, Harpigny also mentioned with respect to the Pope’s leadership in the COVID-19 crisis.

– Frustration over repeated requests that Belgian Bishops consecrate country to Immaculate Heart of Mary

Other highlights from Harpigny’s confinement diary include his positive response to learning that Tournai priests celebrated Masses in streaming during the pandemic – “I think that’s a very good thing”, the bishop said of that innovation – and the prelates’s own experiments with TV and radio liturgy broadcasts.

But the bishop revealed that there were other frustrations for him during confinement in the midst of all the paperwork he caught up on also and the two book reviews he said he wrote, such the multitude of emails and letters that arrived “asking the Bishops to consecrate Belgium to the Immaculate Heart of Mary”.

“Since the bishops of Portugal have done it, what are the bishops of Belgium waiting for?”, Harpigny revealed his correspondents implored.

“It is the same group of people who propose, every year, to say the Rosary along the Belgian borders in order to be freed from evil”, the bishop explained of his interlocutors, adding that other bishops have also received letters requesting the country be consecrated to Mary.

But Harpigny said those Catholics begging for that dedication were ignorant of the fact that Belgium has already been consecrated.

“A theological study has put things in order”, the bishop explained. “A historical study revealed that the Belgian bishops had consecrated Belgium to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1943, one year after Pius XII had consecrated the whole world to the same Heart. This was a request from one of the visionaries of Fatima in 1917”.

In the worst weeks of the pandemic, Belgium recorded the world’s highest rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita, with around 66 people per 10,000 dying of the virus.

At the time officials put that high mortality rate down to the fact that Belgium was, unlike other countries, counting coronavirus deaths both in hospitals and in the community, and in care homes in particular recording as COVID-19 fatalities even unconfirmed but suspected cases of the disease.

To date Belgium has recorded a total of 63,499 cases of the coronavirus, 9,800 deaths and 17,289 recoveries in a population of nearly 11.5 million people.

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