Last week, Pope Francis addressed millions of Catholics around the world with “Urbi et Orbi,” a papal address and apostolic blessing. It was raining in St. Peter’s Square and he was alone, except for a monsignor who helped him climb steps onto a platform.
A lone Pope Francis, who is typically surrounded by thousands in normal times, leading his flock in prayer has become a symbol of the Catholic Church during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering,” he said. He reminded Catholics that during the pandemic, as we are dealing with fear, grief, and loss, we are called to return to our faith and embrace the cross.
“It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.”
Catholic leaders and media interpret a crisis
As of this afternoon, there are more than a million confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases worldwide. The United States has more than 230,000 confirmed cases and 5,400 deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the pandemic was declared, the daily lives of Americans have been altered, including their faith lives. In the United States, Masses and all public gatherings have been cancelled. Just a week prior to Pope Francis’ address, the Vatican issued a decree on how Holy Week liturgies are to occur during the pandemic. On March 20, Pope Francis stated that Catholics who cannot go to confession during the pandemic can “speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth.”
Many Catholics have supported the guidelines provided by the Vatican and U.S. church leaders and urged the Catholic community to use social distancing and quarantine as a time to think more deeply about what it means to be Christian in America. The editors of America Magazine encouraged Catholics to allow the changes brought on by the crisis to “deepen our relationship with God and our solidarity with all who suffer as the Lord did.” Editors at the National Catholic Reporter said that the crisis has forced the Catholic community to think about “what it means to believe and what our communities of faith mean in a time of extended lockdown and quarantine.”
Many Catholics, however, have publicly disagreed with the recommendations given by Pope Francis and U.S. bishops. At First Things, editor in chief R.R. Reno argued that it is incorrect to close churches during this time.
“The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care,” he wrote. “Closing churches and cancelling services betrays this duty of spiritual care.”
Others have started a petition calling on U.S. bishops to reopen churches, including moral theologian Janet Smith; Thomas Farr, the president of the Religious Freedom Institute; pro-life advocate, Abby Johnson; and Philip F. Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News. The petition urged Catholics to demand that bishops re-open churches across the country and administer the sacraments.
“Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship,” the petition read.
Many of these critics are raising these concerns because the sacraments are a crucial part of Catholicism. In the Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. They are essential rites of the church and seen as a pivotal part of one’s relationship with God. Since the pandemic was declared, most parishes have stopped performing them, which is especially difficult as we approach Easter, a time when many who are entering the Catholic Church take these rites for the very first time. When Catholics are not physically participating in these sacraments, they believe that they are depriving themselves of the rituals that help them to express and strengthen their faith. The sacraments also serve as a way for God to make his love and gifts present to Catholics at various stages of one’s faith journey.
“While this physical separation from our parish communities is only temporary, it has real spiritual implications,” wrote Colleen Dulle in America.
Without the sacraments, many are wondering: How are Catholics called to live out their faith during a pandemic?
Lay Catholics respond to virtual Mass
Flora Tang, a 23-year-old student at Harvard Divinity School, began lay-led services once Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley announced on March 13 that all public Masses were cancelled in Boston. On Sunday March 15, five people, including Tang gathered at her house to pray the Liturgy of the Word.
“We prayed the Word, followed by a simple opening hymn. People took turns to preside,” she told me. “We opened up the homily for everyone to share their reflections.” Once additional social distancing rules were implemented in Massachusetts, Tang and her community decided to host these services over Zoom, which now include a weekly Stations of the Cross devotion.
The cancellation of Masses in Boston and social distancing has allowed her to get more creative during Lent and given her more time to connect not just with the people in her life, but in the lives of others as well. She participates in Sunday Liturgy of the Word services and daily morning prayers. On Fridays, she leads her community in a Stations of the Cross devotion, a social practice she enjoys during Lent.
“There is a special power in doing Stations in a platform such as Zoom because people are physically in different places. So, it’s taking up the meaning of a stational liturgy in a different way, where we’re passing around and going around from Boston to Chicago to Toronto.”
Alicia Pender, 32, is an attorney at the National Labor Relations Board. During Easter, four years ago, she converted to Catholicism while living in Buffalo, N.Y. When she moved almost 300 miles to Albany, she struggled to find the faith community she had in her former city. The shift to online Masses, however, has allowed her to connect with her local parish, adding that the Diocese of Albany has done a great job in providing parishioners with resources like prayer guides, live streaming links for Masses and a schedule for Holy Week digital services.
“The magnitude of the pandemic has turned me toward a deeper search for meaning,” Pender told me. “It’s comforting to read these stories and remember that we’re a part of that ongoing tradition.”
Melissa Cedillo, 25, a first-year student at Harvard Divinity School, told me that she has not been participating in any online Masses. When Lent began, she said that she was consistent with her spiritual practices. She went to Mass and was keeping her Lenten promise of journaling every day. In early March, after Harvard moved all classes online and told students they were not allowed to return to campus after Spring Break, Cedillo stopped journaling and has not taken part in any online Masses or services.
She has found solace in discussing how she and her peers are digesting President Donald Trump’s comments about Christianity.
“The more the president seems to define Christianity one way, I find myself really defining what my faith is because it’s not what he’s describing.”
I talked to Cedillo just days after the president announced that he wanted the country back to normal by Easter. She said that she believes Trump does not fully understand the Resurrection.
“There’s a lot of pain and mourning during Holy Week. As Catholics and Christians, we are really asked to sit in that and if we don’t, then we don’t understand the power of the Resurrection.” (On March 29, the president announced that he will no longer re-open the economy by Easter.)
During our conversation, Cedillo also expressed a sentiment shared by many Catholics I have talked with: “If the service doesn’t have that portion of taking communion and physically feeling it, it’s just not the same for me.”
A new approach to Holy Week
For Catholics, once the bread and wine are consecrated by a priest, they become the body and blood of Jesus, serving as a direct and physical connection to God. For this reason, the Eucharist is an integral part of Catholicism and cannot be replicated digitally. The Rev. Eric Sundrup, S.J., tells me that not receiving the sacraments has been a difficult but necessary change for Catholics during what many are describing as an unprecedented time in the American Church’s history.
Sundrup is the pastor of Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati, Ohio. Every week since the pandemic was declared, Sundrup has been taking part in meetings with his local diocese as well as other priests and administrators to discuss best practices during this time. His parish live streams Mass every weekday and Sundays at 9 a.m. Along with digital services, Sundrup allows parishioners to join him for lunch on Zoom every week.
He told me that while these new rituals cannot replace the Eucharist for Catholics, it can allow them to feel what it means to be in community with God in different ways.
“Not having sacraments doesn’t mean that we are separated or devoid of God’s grace. That’s not the only way God can reach out to us,” Sundrup told me.
One of the biggest struggles for Sundrup is the funerals he has had to cancel due to the pandemic. While diocesan rules technically allow for funerals during this time, it would be extremely dangerous because the population he serves is extremely high-risk.
“Families are making decisions not to hold funerals for departed loved ones, but while they make that decision, it makes the stages of grieving difficult to begin,” he said.
He has offered some parishioners the option to do memorial rituals over Zoom that would consist of a eulogy and some prayers. While it is not a funeral, Sundrup said, it would provide a way for grieving families to mourn.
Sundrup says he is preparing for Holy Week by using the guidelines issued by the Vatican in March. According to the Vatican’s decree, Holy Week liturgies should be celebrated in parish churches and Catholics can tune in via live stream or pray in their homes if a live stream is not available from their respective parishes. Sundrup added that he is worried about the candidates and catechumens who will not be able to join Easter Vigil services. He and his staff have started to prepare guides to make accessible many of the acts that occur during Holy Week, such as the ritual washing of the feet.
“You can’t just tell them to do the rituals at home, but you want to give the experience of those sacramentals so that families can do something,” he told me. “We are trying to be really attentive to what are the acceptable ways that we can provide how to experience Easter at home.”
When I asked Sundrup what advice he has for Catholics approaching Easter knowing that the worst of the pandemic has yet to occur, he echoed Pope Francis’ call during last week’s address to listen and deepen our relationship with God.
“I think regular prayer is so crucial,” Sundrup said. “Spend time listening, not just talking at God, but listening to God. And remember to use new methods to reach out to those in our community.”