Perhaps for the first time in history, church doors remained closed globally to the faithful during this year’s Easter triduum due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the new coronavirus interrupting life’s normal rhythms and social distancing becoming a new normal, Masses in India, like elsewhere in the world, were offered in empty churches and live-streamed via digital media.
“Though Holy Week is one of the most prayerful weeks of the Christian liturgical calendar, we have to contend ourselves witnessing by virtual Holy Mass,” Lily Mathews, a teacher in East Delhi, told LiCAS.news. “Slowly we are getting used to the idea. But of course, it is never the same as going to church,” she said.
In an effort to contain the new coronavirus India’s federal government at the end of March ordered a nationwide lockdown. It’s likely to last till the end of April at the least.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action, said Roger Fernandes, a banker.
“We have to reconcile ourselves to these testing times. At home, I tried to make Maundy Thursday Holy Mass action-oriented,” Fernandes said.
“I washed the feet of my sons and also my wife who like Peter hesitated a bit at the thought of having me wash her feet but relented,” he said.
“On Easter Sunday, we lit a candle at noon as per directive of the Archdiocese of Delhi to welcome the risen Jesus, the light of the world.”
The family of Mary Kujur in South Delhi got creative in celebrating their faith.
“For Good Friday, my daughter painted all 14 Stations of the Cross and pasted them on the walls and cupboards of our drawing-room. I never knew she could paint so well,” Kujur said.
“As a reward for her good work, we got her to lead the Stations of the Cross. It was good to jointly pray and meditate each station. We sang hymns like ‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ something we did for the first time.”
This is exactly what Pope Francis is advising “to respond to our confinement with all our creativity,” she said in reference to comments made in a media interview where the pope asked Catholics forced indoors by the pandemic to be creative in their faith.
Sheila Andrews, a retired government employee, said “we need to draw positives from the terrible situation we are in.”
“With COVID-19 stopping the world in its tracks, this is the time when we can adhere to the Almighty’s plea that ‘Be still and know that I am God,’” she said. “Sure, this can now be done as a family given this rare occasion when every member is at home 24×7.”
Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a theologian and medical professional, said that in preparation for Easter she participated in an online Ignatian retreat.
“Prayer, meditation and witnessing Holy Mass are an essential part of my day. The pain, struggle and challenge of the COVID-19 crisis are central to this,” she said.
Thomas Sebastian from the eastern oriental rite Syro Malabar Church said: “At our church people record readings at home which is added to the Holy Mass when aired.”
The above examples are ways that the laity in India have managed to acquire a sense of participation during virtual Masses, said Sebastian, a parishioner of Our Lady of Fatima Church, Jasola, in South Delhi.
But A.C. Michael, a former Delhi Minorities Commission member, said he was not comfortable with the idea of a virtual Mass.
“We watch film shows and stuff on these digital media and I cannot reconcile myself to watching Holy Mass on these platforms,” Michael said.
No one is “morally bound” to witness virtual Mass, Pope Francis has clarified, said Father Stanley Kozhichira, the president of Signis India, a Catholic association for communication professionals.
However, virtual liturgical celebrations also have an advantage in that Catholics can witness Mass celebrated by the pope directly from Rome or by other church leaders.
‘Rome-to-home’ is a welcome idea, for Violetta Scolt, who belongs to the Divine Mercy Church, in Pritampura, West Delhi.
“I see several Holy Masses relayed from different churches around the world and also across India,” she said. “It is good to see varied approaches to the liturgical celebrations and different churches.”
But she said she feels sad in not being able to receive holy Communion.
At times like this, there is ‘spiritual Communion,’ a prayer taught by St. Alphonsus de Liguori, an Italian bishop and theologian, pointed out Father Kohzichira, who also heads the Delhi Archdiocese’s media commission.
“I resort to spiritual Communion every time I step into a chapel even though I offer Holy Mass daily,” Father Kohzichira said.
As far as confession is concerned, the priest said, Pope Francis advises that one can make a good act of contrition instead. But one should go for confession to a priest at the earliest opportunity possible.
Juneeta Lakra, a college student, said people during these times should not pessimistic but count the positives.
“Generally, for Holy Week, we are busy preparing dress schedules for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Most of the time we spend shopping or going to beauty parlors,” Lakra said.
“But this time around, there were no such distractions. No church meant we sat glued to television or digital media. Since we are not with the community in a church there is no looking around and getting distracted by somebody’s attractive dress or hairstyle,” she said.
Not only were there no such distractions but some Catholics, like student Cyrus Sylvester, said that they have learned many new things.
“For example, my mother told me Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of the priesthood something I had not known,” Sylvester said.
His mother explained to him the significance of fire and the Paschal candle. “I had never attended the vigil service as our house is too far from the parish and so I had not seen all this before,” he said.
The Second Vatican Council noted that the family is the “domestic Church” as parents are first preachers of the faith to their children, Father Kozhichira explained.
Practicing one’s faith during the lockdown period due to COVID-19 was an opportunity to revive the spirit of the domestic church in the most profound sense, especially during the Easter, the priest said.