Holy Week in the Era of Coronavirus

Q:  The pastor of my parish told me that your recent article is wrong.  He says that both Cardinal Sarah [Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship] and Pope Francis approved of the bishops’ decision to cancel all Masses.  The pastor claims that this is proven by Cardinal Sarah’s decree about how to handle Holy Week and the Easter Triduum.

This doesn’t make any sense to me.  What am I missing?…  Can you figure out why my pastor thinks that the Pope okayed what the bishops in [my country] have done? –Dean

A:  Unfortunately, what Dean tells us isn’t at all surprising.  The recent article to which he refers, “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” elicited a number of truly shocking email-responses from parish clergy around the world, apparently seeking to justify their abandonment of the lay faithful, whose spiritual wellbeing is the whole purpose of their existence.  No two replies are alike: they range from shouting with CAPITAL LETTERS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! that the article is “unconvincing” and “irresponsible,” to lecturing from the other side of the world about the “real” situation here in Italy/Rome, to selfish queries of “But if the bishop finds out that I’m ministering to my parishioners, what will happen to me?”  There’s also a lot of self-pity (“You don’t know how hard it is for me to be deprived of community,” and “This is the tough price of obedience”)—which is evidently intended to elicit sympathy from the same lay Catholics from whom they are illegally withholding Mass and the sacraments.

Their self-centeredness, coupled with an absence of even the most basic civility, has been a real eye-opener.  Please join me in praying for these priests.

But by the grace of God, there are countless other parish priests around the world who don’t have time to respond to internet articles these days, as they are busy finding ways to serve the Catholic faithful entrusted to their care—even in places where they risk imprisonment by their civil governments for doing so.  As Pope Francis remarked with pleasure in his March 15 Angelus address (finally available on the Vatican website in English), “There are priests who think of thousands of ways to be close to the people, so that the people do not feel abandoned; priests with apostolic zeal….”  Here’s a poignant example of a North-American pastor who found a safe way to celebrate Sunday Mass for his parish—note how many parishioners showed up, even though they were dispensed from doing so!—while in Peru, another parish priest managed to arrange for Eucharistic adoration despite a stay-at-home order by the government.

And throughout Italy, where priests can be instantly arrested for saying Mass with even just one other person present, or for administering the sacraments to the dying, it is known here that—as Pope Francis obliquely indicated in the above-mentioned address—there are brave priests out there seeking clever ways to evade the unjust civil authorities, in order to reach as many of their parishioners as they humanly can.  Along with praying for the weak-kneed, let’s pray for these courageous priests too.

With all this in mind, let’s now turn to Dean’s question.  Be aware that while his parish priest claims that the new Vatican decree shows that “Pope Francis approved of the bishops’ decision to cancel all Masses,” it actually does nothing of the kind.  In fact, it’s quite easy to see that the March 25 document, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), is very broadly worded because it is providing norms for the Church in all countries around the globe.  It’s important to remember that the situation worldwide right now is not only fluid, but varies dramatically from country to country—ranging from nations with thousands of people dying of the virus (as here in Italy), to those with virtually no virus-related issues at all (like Papua New Guinea, which as of this writing is dealing with only one virus-infected person).  In some places, civil authorities have instituted lockdowns with criminal prosecution for violators, while in others there are only recommended guidelines; and in countries with crowd-restrictions, the number of persons who can legally gather often varies markedly.

Given these vastly diverse circumstances, it was probably quite tricky for Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect of the CDW, to issue norms that can be applied reasonably and consistently to the Church throughout the entire world right now.  If you find yourself reading them and wondering, “Why didn’t he specifically address our situation?” this is the reason.  Let’s see what he wrote.

For starters, it appears that some were asking the Vatican whether Easter Sunday could be postponed this year.  They were right to ask Rome, because as canon 1244.1 tells us, only the supreme ecclesiastical authority (i.e., the Pope) can establish, transfer or suppress holydays—bishops and parish priests cannot make such decisions on their own.  The CDW decree notes immediately in its second paragraph that Easter Sunday, which falls this year on April 12, cannot be moved.  So the answer is no.  That means, of course, that Palm Sunday will still be April 5, and Holy Thursday must be celebrated on April 9, Good Friday on April 10, and Holy Saturday on April 11 … whether the virus is raging in your part of the world and you’re on government-imposed lockdown during those days, or not.

If you’re not, great!  But as the document notes, “in those countries which have been struck by the disease and where restrictions around the assembly and movement of people have been imposed” by the civil authorities, “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” (emphasis added—we’ll look at what constitutes a “suitable place” in a moment).  Note that the document says that they may celebrate without the people, not that they must.  In other words, the CDW is telling the clergy that if, in your region, people aren’t legally allowed to leave their houses and thus are prevented from attending Masses and other rites during Holy Week, you can still go ahead and celebrate them anyway.  But if people can get there, the CDW is most certainly not saying that they are forbidden to attend!

With regard to Palm Sunday, the document tells us that the liturgical “first form” of the entrance into the cathedral or church, which involves a procession outdoors, is not to be used.  Undoubtedly, this is to prevent the crowds to which it inevitably gives rise.  Instead, the bishop at his cathedral is to use the “second form,” which entails a less solemn entrance, beginning at the door of the cathedral.  In other churches, the parish clergy are to use the “third form,” which simply means the priest is himself to walk to the altar and begin the Mass.  (If you’re curious about these first, second and third forms, you can find a fuller description of the Palm Sunday liturgy here.)  The rest of the Palm Sunday Mass is normal.

The document has more to say about Holy Thursday, because there are two types of Masses ordinarily celebrated on this day: the Chrism Mass, which a diocesan bishop normally celebrates in his cathedral, together with the diocesan clergy; and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated in both the cathedral and other churches in the evening, which often includes the celebrant’s washing of feet, in imitation of Christ’s washing of the feet of the twelve Apostles.

The CDW says that individual Episcopal Conferences are to assess the situation in their part of the world with a view to possibly transferring the Chrism Mass to another date.  For the record, there is precedent for celebrating the Chrism Mass on a day other than Holy Thursday.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is to take place on Holy Thursday, but the washing of feet (which the document observes is already optional anyway) is to be omitted.  Also omitted are the Eucharistic procession at the end of the Mass, at the end of which the priest normally puts the Blessed Sacrament at the altar of repose—frequently a side altar, in a place other than where the tabernacle containing the Eucharist the rest of the year is located—for adoration by the faithful throughout the evening after the Mass.  This year, the priest is simply to place the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle as on any other day.

Ordinarily, these are the two Masses celebrated on Holy Thursday—but the Roman Missal gives some other indications regarding the celebration of Mass on a typical Holy Thursday, which are worth looking at here (as cited in the CDW’s 1988  Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts:

Where pastoral considerations require it, the local ordinary may permit another Mass to be celebrated in churches and oratories in the evening and, in the case of true necessity, even in the morning, but only for those faithful who cannot otherwise participate in the evening Mass. Care should nevertheless be taken to ensure that celebrations of this kind do not take place for the benefit of private persons or of small groups, and that they are not to the detriment of the main Mass.

According to the ancient tradition of the Church, all Masses without the participation of the people are forbidden on this day.

The new CDW document says nothing regarding the first paragraph, so no changes to it are made and it remains in force as-is.  As to the second, however, the CDW has now given priests a broader concession for 2020: they may celebrate a Mass without the presence of the people “in a suitable place,” something which normally is not permitted.  Once again, the CDW is not saying that the faithful cannot attend Mass on Holy Thursday; rather, the document tells us that if no faithful are around, and a priest will not be celebrating the Mass of the Last Supper at a church with a congregation, he can nevertheless celebrate his own Holy Thursday Mass without them.  In other words, the CDW has widened the options for saying Masses on this day—not restricted them.

As for Good Friday, when the Church always celebrates the Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord in lieu of Mass, very little is changed by the CDW document.  Bishops are instructed to add a prayer “for those who find themselves in distress, the sick, the dead” to the intercessions; and instead of inviting everyone in the congregation to come up to venerate the cross (which people frequently do by kissing it), it is to be kissed by the celebrant alone.

The document says that the Easter Vigil Mass which is celebrated on Holy Saturday evening is “to be celebrated only in Cathedral and parish churches.”  This means it is not to be celebrated in monasteries or other non-parish churches (see “Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?” for more on this distinction).  Note that this is far more restrictive than the CDW’s instructions for some of the other days of Holy Week, when Mass can be celebrated “in a suitable place.”

Ordinarily, at the Easter Vigil Mass the celebrant blesses the baptismal font if applicable; he blesses water in the baptismal font;  he leads the faithful in the renewal of their baptismal promises; and then he sprinkles the congregation with the water he just blessed.  If there are any candidates for baptism (or baptized non-Catholics to be received into the Church), this normally takes place during the Easter Vigil Mass as well.  But this year, the CDW has decreed that the only element that is to be retained is the renewal of baptismal promises.

If you’re wondering why a person couldn’t be baptized or received into the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass this year, remember that these rules apply to the Church around the world—and in quite a few places, people are not being allowed by their governments to leave their homes.  It seems fairly clear that the CDW wants to avoid suggesting that candidates for baptism must defy civil laws and come to the church no matter what; it is also a message for the celebrating clergy, that they can go ahead and celebrate the Mass even if those who were scheduled to be baptized or received into the Church that evening cannot attend.  Obviously, provisions will have to be made for them at another date/time.

The CDW says nothing specific about the celebration of Mass on Easter Sunday.  Note that the general statement made at the beginning of the document applies to this day too: the clergy can celebrate Mass “in a suitable place,” avoiding concelebration, and in the absence of the faithful, if nobody is able to come.

What does the phrase “in a suitable place” mean, with regard to the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week?  This issue was addressed at length in “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?” but in general, the norm is found in canon 932.1, which states that the Eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place—unless a particular necessity requires otherwise, in which case it is to be held in another, suitable place.  If your country or region has outlawed the celebration of Mass, and the police are watching the parish church, you most certainly have “a particular necessity [that] requires otherwise,” and a priest can celebrate Mass elsewhere, such as in a private home.  The same would of course hold if a bishop has illegally ordered all the churches to be locked: if a priest can’t celebrate Mass in church, then he should celebrate Mass where he can.

So now that we’ve taken a brief look at the CDW’s decree on Holy Week, let’s return to Dean’s question.  Why did his parish priest tell him that the document proves “that both Cardinal Sarah [Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship] and Pope Francis approved of the bishops’ decision to cancel all Masses”?  The answer is anybody’s guess, but it’s probably a combination of (a) wishful thinking, in an attempt to excuse his own pastoral inaction, and (b) the absence of any direct condemnation of the bishops’ action in the document.

The fact that the CDW decree doesn’t directly lambaste the many bishops who are violating the rights of the faithful by cancelling all Masses (and in many cases, also withholding all the sacraments!) should surprise no one, and that for three reasons:
1) First of all, the purpose of the document was to provide guidance to the universal Church regarding Holy Week, not to discuss the conduct of some diocesan bishops.
2) Secondly, it is not within the purview of the CDW to be addressing the general conduct of bishops and clergy; these are matters which generally fall under the authority of the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith (since there often are fundamental theological issues involved) and of course Pope Francis directly.
3) Finally, if the Vatican intends to take diocesan bishops to task, it surely will do so privately, not by writing about it in a decree issued for all the world to see.  (See “Obama, Notre Dame, and the Bishop’s Authority” for more on this practice, as seen in a different context.)  Remember, just because we don’t see anything like this happening, doesn’t mean it isn’t indeed happening behind closed doors!  The diocese of Rome, for example, is still abuzz because of what appears to have been some sort of smackdown by the Pope of his Vicar for Rome, regarding the closure and abrupt reopening of Rome’s churches on March 13.  While nobody is sure of the details, there’s unquestionably a story there—but it’s all going on behind the scenes.

We Catholics live in bewildering times, don’t we?  It is ironic that it’s during Holy Week that the Church especially meditates on the Passion of Our Lord, which began with His Agony in the Garden.  As the Gospels indicate, when a crowd of armed men came to the garden to arrest Jesus, “all the disciples left Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56; cf. also Mark 14:50).  Let’s continue praying that our clergy will have the courage to do their best to minister to the needs of the faithful, despite the roadblocks that both ecclesiastical superiors and many civil governments have set up in their way.

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