The Rev. Chris Walsh spent Wednesday morning videoconferencing with St. Raymond of Penafort Church staff members about how to make Holy Week and Easter feel normal during a season of Lent that has been anything but.
Can they pass out palms in the parking lot? How can the livestreaming experience be enhanced? Is there a safe way to get Easter water to the faithful?
“We’re in a time in which we’ve never had a playbook,” said Walsh, a pastor at the Northwest Philadelphia church. “Certainly not in my lifetime was Holy Week canceled, or not able to be public.… We’re looking for ways to really make it powerful.”
In a directive to priests Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia called off all public Masses and services for Holy Week and Easter. The decision, which landed the same day President Donald Trump said he hoped Easter would bring “packed churches all over our country,” came after orders last week suspending public Masses indefinitely at the archdiocese’s more than 250 parishes, as the coronavirus spread in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Though the directive will keep the region’s 1.3 million Catholics away on the holiest day of their religion, churches remain open for the faithful to pray, under new restrictions on social distancing. The archdiocese is still encouraging parishioners to participate from home in livestreamed celebrations.
Dioceses in New York, Wisconsin, Maine, and elsewhere have also canceled in-person Holy Week services, as have some Protestant and Orthodox denominations grappling with how to practice social distancing during their holiest season.
The Catholic parish changes are in line with direction from the Vatican, which Wednesday stated bishops and priests in affected countries may celebrate Holy Week “without the presence of the people and in a suitable place." The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will also continue to stream an 11 a.m. Mass live from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul every Sunday.
The Rev. Ken Brabazon at St. Isidore Church in Quakertown said it was “only by God’s grace” that his Bucks County parish had set up its capability to livestream weeks before the coronavirus crisis hit — an idea he had floated last year when staffers were installing a new video security system.
Thanks to the technology, he has still said 7:30 a.m. daily Masses, two weekend Masses in English and Spanish, and nightly prayers — many featuring his 63-year-old mother, who drove up from South Philadelphia to shelter in place with him, and whom livestream watchers now affectionately refer to as “Mrs. B.”
“It helps that I have someone with me,” he said. “It makes it a little more natural.”
Though most services occur in front of empty pews or from the church’s chapel, Brabazon said he hopes to have a cantor, a musician, and a deacon with him for Easter so “it will feel a bit more like a normal celebration.”
“It’s not the same as being in the same location and being united by being at the altar,” he said. “But it’s good to still be connected, if only in this way.”
Some Catholic faithful in the region say that instead of livestreaming, they are planning tiny services in their homes. Mia Holman, a nurse practitioner who spent several days working in a COVID-19 testing tent in Radnor, plans to gather with relatives the night before Easter for a makeshift vigil.
She’ll miss the communal experience of Mass at her home parish, St. Thomas of Villanova, but said there could ultimately be a silver lining.
“God uses every situation to bring out good,” said Holman, 55, of Bryn Mawr. “And I think that this will allow Catholics who never even considered doing things any differently to come back to our roots of the home church.”
The Rev. Dennis Gill, who runs the archdiocese’s Office for Divine Worship, has outlined additional guidelines, beyond livestreaming, for how priests should stage Holy Week and Easter celebrations in the age of stay-at-home orders and social distancing.
For example, priests are encouraged not to cancel their orders of palm fronds, a staple of Palm Sunday services, which recount the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. According to the memo, the fronds will be refrigerated and preserved for distribution at a future date.
The traditional feet-washing has been banned for Holy Thursday celebrations, the evening Mass to celebrate the Last Supper, as have gestures such as touching or kissing the cross.
Still, Gill wrote, efforts must be made to help those participating from afar to feel engaged. He encouraged priests to continue ringing church bells, decorating their churches as they normally would, and prompting online viewers with the normal calls for standing, kneeling, and singing during Mass.
Sean McElwee, campus minister for liturgical music at Villanova University, said such signs and symbols of Lent are in many ways unique to Catholicism and allow for a sensory experience. He said they “really do end up contributing to our understanding of the faith.”
McElwee, 32, of West Chester, plans to stream Easter Mass and hopes others find ways to prayerfully follow along, even if that means sitting, standing, and kneeling “when they’re watching Mass in their living room in their pajamas.”
“We’re going to have to work a little harder to keep our faith and our sense of hope during this time,” he said, “but Easter will help with that.”