Churches carry on Holy Week services, without the congregation

Apr 10, 2020

Churches with the means to provide live video streaming utilized the online tool to provide Good Friday services during a time when COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings are continuing to keep religious faithful home. It's a period during which there are holy occasions for three prominent faiths.

It was the same the night before, when churches usually filled with worshipers for Holy Thursday Mass instead carried on the rite before empty seats but in front of running cameras.

Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church in Lancaster was one of several churches that provided access to their Good Friday services via live video streaming.
Credit YouTube/OLP Livestream

"I will admit, it's hard to celebrate these two beautiful sacraments because we are separated. The Eucharist has in a way been quarantined, together with the rest of all of us. And with the priesthood, the priests would not be priests without the flock to minister to," said Father Paul Cygan of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Williamsville, whose homily could be heard via the church's website streaming video and its YouTube channel. "Believe me, it's been difficult sometimes to celebrate Mass and to see empty pews. And to realize that, at least, the hope is that we see so many of you have logged on to our live stream and that gives so much hope to all of us.

"One of the greatest pains that I can think of so far is not being able to give out communion to our faithful."

Christians are not the only religious faithful to be encountering holy days while being kept away from their places of worship. Members of the Jewish community welcomed Passover earlier in the week, but had to rely on online video to share the night with anyone outside the household. Social distancing guidelines set forth by the state, if obeyed, would limit face-to-face seder participants to those living within a household.

Members of the Muslim community, meanwhile, will open their holy month of Ramadan on the evening of April 23, when New York PAUSE remains in effect.

On Good Friday, churches video streamed afternoon services marking the crucifixion of Jesus. At St. Bernadette's parish in Orchard Park, Pastor Paul Seil shared Father Cygan's lament as well as his hope that people would utilize web services for as long as churches are to remain closed.

He was asked what message he would send to faithful who feel they are not fulfilling their obligations, though being unable to attend church is not their fault under the current circumstances.

"I think there's certainly generations of Catholics who have been so formed by the notion that attendance at church services is constitutive, vital, and even if you don't do it, it could be a sin," Father Seil said. "But in cases like this, you know, the mercy of God always over overcomes any human law. And you know, the mercy of God, the love of God is always there."

What Father Seil added, though, is even with online options available, there are some still unable to participate.

"There is kind of a distinction in people who have and have not, whether they're not in the realm of and in the circular aspect of virtual virtual technology, or whether they just maybe don't afford it or can't get it or don't have it," he said. "So there's a lot of other deeper issues too, that while we're joining together in this virtual way, it certainly does not include everyone. And when our churches are able to open again, we got to make sure that we do include everyone."

Father Cygan, on Holy Thursday, said during his homily while adversity can bring out the worst, it has also brought out the best in people.

Father Paul Cygan of St. Gregory the Great parish in Williamsville, delivering his Holy Thursday homily as presented by the church's YouTube channel.
Credit YouTube/stgregswilliamsville

"All over the world, people are applauding healthcare workers from their homes. As the medical personnel go to work and risk their lives, people are finding new ways to connect with each other over the internet and making sure that no one is feeling alone," he said. "Families are even closer together. Great acts of service, watching out for our neighbors, and realizing that we are all one."

Before churches closed under New York PAUSE, Catholic churches suspended the distribution of Holy Communion through the cup. Even during online-only Masses, priests and deacons are typically using their own cups or chalices. Holy Thursday Masses created an additional change. One of the usual traditions is for priests, reenacting Christ's act of self-humbling at the Last Supper, to wash the feet of twelve selected members of the congregation.

At St. Gregory the Great parish, that was waived as a health precaution. Instead, the attending priests, deacons and musical ministry said the Hail Mary prayer twice.

Father Cygan offered a spiritual twist to one of the practices people have been urged to keep doing during the pandemic.

"Have you been wondering why two Hail Marys?" he asked. "First of all, because praying to the blessed mother is the best thing we can do and she's protecting us in her mantle. The second is because it takes 20 seconds to pray the Hail Mary twice, which is exactly the time that the CDC suggests how long we should wash our hands. So instead of singing happy birthday, while we wash our hands we can actually make washing hands into a prayer."