The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is preparing for what had been, before the coronavirus pandemic, unthinkable: holy week and Easter without public liturgies.
The archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship issued a seven-page document March 24 in anticipation that the current suspension of public Masses due to the restrictions on public gatherings of any size will likely remain in effect during the holiest time on the Christian calendar.
Holy Week begins with Palm (Passion) Sunday April 5. The sacred triduum follows with Holy Thursday April 9; Good Friday April 10; Holy Saturday April 11 and Easter Sunday April 12.
The document, signed by Father Dennis Gill, director of the office, draws on directives regarding liturgical celebrations during Holy Week issued in the past week by the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
While the document directs that there will be no public Masses, parishes should make available “all possible electronic and spiritual resources” to help people “enter into these days which celebrate the greatest mysteries of our redemption.”
As of March 25, 42 parishes and shrines in the Philadelphia Archdiocese were making private daily and Sunday Masses available along with other liturgies and devotions via livestreamed video on parish websites and Facebook pages — see our complete list here.
Whether or not the Masses for holy week are streamed, the document directs they should be celebrated privately in the parish church and with a limited number of liturgical ministers and musicians, perhaps only a cantor and accompanist, and all serving the Mass at a suitable distance.
For Palm Sunday, the traditional procession at the beginning of Mass is to be omitted and palms should be blessed for later public distribution after the coronavirus crisis abates.
Palms are not to be left at the church for people to pick up at a later time, the document reads, adding that blessed palm “is a sacramental rich in power to remind all of us of Christ’s victory over sin and death. It certainly has special significance during the pandemic.”
The Chrism Mass, which is traditionally celebrated on Holy Thursday morning by the archbishop of Philadelphia as clergy renew their ordination promises in the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, will not be publicly celebrated this year.
But the Mass will be streamed live on Monday of Holy Week, April 7, at 7 p.m. from the cathedral. Details, according to the document, will be forthcoming.
The Oils of Catechumens and of the Sick will be blessed and the Oil of Chrism will be consecrated as usual at the Chrism Mass, but they will be distributed to parishes at a later date.
The document gives instruction on private celebrations for Holy Thursday and the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which begins the sacred triduum.
The Vatican has given permission this year only for priests to celebrate the Mass in parishes without a congregation. In such a private Mass, the rite of washing of the feet — modeling the act of humble service by Jesus for his disciples at the Last Supper — is to be omitted.
Also dropped this year is the rite at the conclusion of the Mass in which the priest and people process with the Blessed Sacrament to an altar of repose.This year, the sacrament will be returned to the tabernacle after Communion and the altar is to be stripped at a later time.
The liturgy for Good Friday, also to be celebrated privately, features prominently a long list of solemn intercession prayers for the needs of the world. This year a plea for relief from the pandemic appears in a prayer approved by Archbishop Nelson Perez, following the suggestion of the USCCB, as the 11th intercession:
“For an end to the pandemic: Let us pray, dearly beloved, for a swift end to the coronavirus pandemic that afflicts our world, that our God and Father will heal the sick, strengthen those who care for them, and help us all to persevere in faith,” the prayer reads.
After a period of silent prayer, the priest says, “Almighty and merciful God, source of all life, health and healing, look with compassion on our world, brought low by disease; protect us in the midst of the grave challenges that assail us and in your fatherly providence grant recovery to the stricken, strength to those who care for them, and success to those working to eradicate this scourge. Through Christ our Lord,” after which those present respond, “Amen.”
Those present at the rite of veneration of the cross should not kiss it but genuflect or bow reverently, the document reads.
The following day, Holy Saturday, is normally a somber period of reflection on the death of Jesus, followed by the holiest night of the liturgical year: the Easter Vigil Mass celebrating the resurrection of Christ.
The private celebration of the Mass this year omits some of its most distinctive features including the lighting of the Easter fire with procession — only the Easter candle is lit. Other elements such as the proclamation of the Exsultet prayer and the numerous readings from Scripture remain.
Also this year under Vatican and USCCB directives, the reception of Catholics into the church through the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist and confirmation will not be celebrated at the Easter vigil but deferred to another time.
Easter Sunday Masses also will be celebrated privately in parish churches, and presumably streamed from them via the internet where possible.
With dozens of parishes now presenting liturgies online and many more preparing to do so during Holy Week, the archdiocesan guidelines advise parishes to help people fully engage in worship by offering options including well-known responses and music, and inviting people to stand or kneel at home at appropriate times. This could include persons venerating a crucifix in their home on Good Friday.
“Whatever will help the faithful to participate virtually is a good thing and this value should not be underestimated,” the document reads. “The typical decorating and appointments in our churches should take place this year, such as veiling statues, decorating with palm and Easter flowers, as appropriate and possible. These familiar visual elements will help draw the faithful into this holy time of the year.”
To assist clergy and lay persons in parishes, full pastoral and spiritual resources are available at the website Archphila.org/resources.
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