A French bishop has deplored the fearmongering around the coronavirus, lamenting that with the panic “it seems we’ve all lost our minds!”.

– “I refuse to give in to collective panic”

” More than the coronavirus epidemic, we should dread the epidemic of fear!”, Bishop Pascal Roland of Belley-Ars wrote in a column on the diocesan website.

“For my part, I refuse to give in to collective panic and to submit to the precautionary principle that seems to be operating in civil institutions”, the prelate added.

“I do not intend, therefore, to issue any special instructions for my diocese.

“Will Christians stop gathering together to pray? Will they give up frequenting and helping their fellow human beings?”

“Apart from the elementary precautionary measures that all spontaneously take so as not to contaminate others when they are ill, it is not appropriate to add even more”, Roland wrote.

– “In much more serious situations Christians have never shunned their fellow human beings”

The Bishop of Belley-Ars’ reflections came as dioceses around France have issued instructions to priests either banning communion on the tongue or banning outright the celebration of public Masses, as in the “high-risk” dioceses of Vannes or Beauvais, for example.

That’s as the COVID-19 virus has so far infected over 200 people in France, and taken the lives of at least four.

Bishop Roland told his faithful that “we should remember that in much more serious situations” than the present COVID-19 outbreak – “those of the great plagues, at a time when sanitary resources were not those of today” – “Christian populations distinguished themselves through collective prayer, as well as by helping the sick, assisting the dying and burying the dead”.

“In short, the followers of Christ have neither turned away from God nor shunned their fellow human beings. Quite the contrary!”

– “We want to hide the fact that we are mortal”

The Bishop of Belley-Ars suggested in his column that “the collective panic we are witnessing today” around coronavirus reveals “our distorted relationship with the reality of death” and “the anxiety-provoking effects of the loss of God”.

“We want to hide the fact that we are mortal and, having closed ourselves off from the spiritual dimension of our being, we lose our footing”, Roland warned.

“Because we have more and more elaborate and more efficient techniques at our disposal, we pretend to master everything and we conceal the fact that we are not the masters of life!”

– “Why suddenly focus our attention on the coronavirus alone?”

The bishop continued by saying that the “global crisis” of COVID-19 – slightly more deadly than the common flu and which to date has infected 93,000 people in 81 countries and killed nearly 3,200 – “at least has the advantage” of reminding us of our “human frailty”, and also “that we live in a Common Home, that we are all vulnerable and interdependent, and that it is more urgent to cooperate than to close our borders!”

But Bishop Roland asked: “Why suddenly focus our attention on the coronavirus alone?”

“Why hide the fact that every year in France, the ordinary seasonal flu makes between 2 and 6 million people sick and causes about 8,000 deaths?”, the prelate asked, recalling that alcohol is though to cause 41,000 deaths a year in France, and tobacco 73,000.

– “A church is not a place of risk, but a place of salvation”

Roland insisted he wouldn’t contemplate preventative measures such as the closure of churches or the suspension of the sign of peace, “because a church is not a place of risk, but a place of salvation”.

“Should we be cloistered at home? Is it really necessary to ransack the local supermarket and build up reserves in order to prepare for a siege? No! For a Christian does not fear death. He is not unaware that he is mortal, but he knows in whom he has put his trust”, the Belley-Ars bishop continued.

“Also, a Christian does not belong to himself; his life is given, because he follows Jesus… He does not expose himself unduly, but neither does he seek to preserve himself”.

Roland concluded by asking Catholics to remember the example of Jesus, and to give themselves generously to the service of their most fragile brothers and sisters, in the perspective of eternal life.

“So let us not give in to the epidemic of fear! Let us not be the living dead! As Pope Francis would say: do not let your hope be stolen away from you!”, the bishop cried.

– “A prophetic and spiritual word to help counter superficial reactions”

Bishop Roland’s remarks have caused quite a debate in France, with some people there questioning his reckless heroism and others praising him for being a representative of a Church that “for once” refuses to cave in to the health or ideological dictates of our age.

But after writing the polemical column Roland stood behind his words in comments to La Croix, explaining that “Yes, I wanted to to affirm our freedom when public powers are trying unduly interfere in the lives of citizens”.

“Of course we must be responsible and use common sense, but everyone must play their part”, the bishop added.

“The Church is not a health authority. As a pastor, I must bring a prophetic and spiritual word to help counter superficial reactions”.

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