April 3, 2020


Celebrating Holy Week and Easter sine populo

“Since the Solemnity of Easter cannot be transferred, in the countries which have been struck by the [coronavirus] disease and where restrictions around the assembly and movement of people have been imposed, bishops and priests may celebrate the rites of Holy Week without the presence of the people and in a suitable place, avoiding concelebration and omitting the sign of peace” (Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, March 25, 2020).

For the first time in the Church’s 2,000-year history, the sacred rites of holy week and Easter will be celebrated sine populo, without the presence of people. The liturgies will take place as scheduled, but the bishops and priests who celebrate them will be virtually alone—in most places without concelebrants, altar servers or congregations.

This is unprecedented and unimaginable. The very meaning of “Church” (“ecclesia” in Greek) is “gathering” or “assembly.” Gathering to celebrate Mass on Sundays and holy days is central to our self-understanding as Catholics. We worship God in communities of faith, and the sustenance we receive in these sacred assemblies (especially our reception of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist) is what enables us to carry out the Church’s mission “in the world.”  

Private Masses, comprising a priest alone or with just a few participants, were prevalent before the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms. Many churches had “side altars” where these individual Masses were celebrated. But these private celebrations never took the place of the community Mass where the people gathered for daily, Sunday and holy day Masses. What is happening now as a result of the coronavirus and the necessity of social distancing is completely new and unprecedented in our Church’s experience.  

Thank God we have instruments of communication that can make these sacred liturgies and other prayers and devotions available—on television and radio as well as livestreaming to our computers and other devices. Through the modern miracle of social media, Pope Francis and our bishops and pastors can come into our homes, helping us remain connected (remotely) to the Church’s prayer and worship.  

Some object that electronic liturgies are a poor substitute for being physically present. And, of course, it’s not possible to receive the body and blood of Christ unless you are actually there to partake in this great sacrament. Most livestreamed or televised Masses suggest that viewers make a spiritual communion at the time when the Eucharist would normally be distributed but, of course, it’s not the same. Especially when we have recently been made aware of the need to help Catholics better understand the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, it’s awkward at best to have to replace actual reception of the sacrament with a sincere expression of desire. 

Still, if you have had the opportunity to attend Mass virtually with your pastor, or with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson or one of the priests at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, or to pray with Pope Francis livestreamed from an empty St. Peter’s Square in Rome, you probably have experienced a very special connection with our Lord. Without the benefit of electronic media, we would be completely isolated from the celebration of the Eucharist. These opportunities help us remain close to Jesus in spite of social distancing.  

In a recent televised Mass, Father Patrick Beidelman, rector of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, reminded his remote congregation that: 

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; 
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves” (Ps 34:18). 

“These days, we have all witnessed heartbreaking stories of people who have lost someone to this awful disease or whose lives have been ‘crushed in spirit’ by lost jobs or by being cut off from family and friends,” Father Beidelman said. “Today, it is more important than ever that we stay close to Jesus and, through him, to one another.” 

The great writer G.K. Chesterton once said, contrary to the popular expression, that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Chesterton’s point was that the really important things in life are worth doing, even if we can’t do them perfectly. Attending Mass and other prayer services remotely is definitely not the same as actually being there, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.  

This Holy Week and Easter we have a choice: 1) Be isolated from some of our Church’s most sacred moments (such as Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil), or 2) Participate remotely and open ourselves to the grace of God who is close to the brokenhearted. Let’s choose closeness rather than isolation.

—Daniel Conway

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