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Catholic communities will need to fulfil religious obligations in their homes this Easter as a result of COVID-19
Toronto’s Catholic Christians are experiencing their holiest time of the year without access to churches and communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to the current pandemic, the liturgical celebration of the paschal mysteries of Holy Week, the Triduum and Easter will be celebrated without the physical participation of the faithful,” Cardinal Thomas Collins, who is the archbishop of Toronto, wrote in a March 25 letter to all Catholic priests in the archdiocese.
For Catholics, who follow the Gregorian calendar for liturgical dates, Holy Week commenced on Palm Sunday on April 5 and will ends with Easter Sunday on April 12.
Religious obligations for Holy Week include masses for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which make up the Easter Triduum.
Other obligations include receiving Holy Communion and reconciliation (confession of one’s sins to a priest).
The archdiocese of Toronto cancelled all daily and weekend masses on March 13, but remained open for personal prayers until Premier Doug Ford announced the closure of non-essential services and businesses on March 31.
The diocese administers to 225 churches and over two million Catholics in the downtown core and Greater Toronto Area.
Believers being told to be physically distant from churches during Holy Week is a new challenge for the Catholic church.
The last time some churches were required to close was during the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920, but not to the extent of the current pandemic, according to Rev. Matthew McCarthy.
McCarthy, an associate priest at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in downtown Toronto, says Catholic churches will live streamall Holy Week masses on Facebook and Instagram to satisfy mass obligations.
“The Church has granted a dispensation to all who are unable to fulfil their obligations (annual reconciliation and mass), says McCarthy. “In other words, the lay faithful are exempt from physically attending any of the Holy Week services in order to fulfil their obligation.”
To satisfy the eucharist and reconciliation obligations, Catholics are asked to recite a prayer for “spiritual communion,” and continue practising personal prayers and devotions on their own, according to McCarthy.
Adjusting to the new normal
In North York, seminarian Mark Suezo says his household is doing what it can to celebrate Holy Week without access to the city’s larger community.
“We are preparing for Holy Week by trying to be creative with the limited space we have in our chapel,” said Suezo, interviewed before Holy Week. “For instance, we are doing a short procession for Palm Sunday starting at the front door of our house.”
Suezo is part of the Redemptorists, an order within the Roman Catholic church dedicated to missionary work.
His household is made up of seminarians, university students and priests.
In Scarborough, Ryerson University student John Jacob says the annual traditions of visiting extended family in Hamilton during the week and inviting friends and relatives for Easter Sunday are not possible this year.
Despite the limitations, he says his family is “still treating this week with great reverence.”
In the lead up to Holy Week, his family watched daily live streamed masses and prayed together consistently.
To reach the wider faith community, Jacob is using the video conferencing app Zoom to share Bible readings and reflections with his friends and Catholic groups all over Canada.
Reaching out to other parts of Canada is reminiscent of his missionary work this past year in the Maritime provinces.
Jacob is an experienced missionary with Jesus Youth Canada, an international movement associated with Toronto’s affluent Syro-Malabar Catholic community.
The Syro-Malabar church is an eastern Catholic branch originating from Kerala, southern India.
Toronto’s Catholic leadership continues to follow the advice of Pope Francis in Vatican City.
The leader of the Catholic church urged believers to “have no fear” and to care for the sick and medical workers as the virus continues to spread.
During a morning mass in an empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27, Pope Francis reminded Christians that the pandemic will inspire “a general concern for others: for families that don’t have enough to get by, for the elderly who are alone, for the sick in hospitals.”
Other Catholic leaders worldwide, including Toronto’s Cardinal Collins, are urging Catholics to continue supporting charities and make charitable acts for those affected by the pandemic.