The congregation gathers online for Holy Week services across the country

For the first time, in its 500-year-old history, the Easter Holy Mass of the iconic Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica in Fort Kochi will open to empty pews. The Bishop of Cochin Reverend Joseph Kariyil will deliver the Easter message accompanied by a singer and a cameraman, all maintaining a safe distance from each other in keeping with global restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The service will be telecast live by cable network, broadcasting under Youth TV, Kumbalangi, and 39,858 Catholic families in the diocesan territory will join virtually.

In Chennai, Father Shinu K Thomas of St Thomas Orthodox Cathedral has been serving his congregation remotely since the lockdown began. Like many pastors across the country, and world, he now streams worship services live on the church’s Facebook page using a mobile phone. His congregation and assistants are his son and wife. “The three of us sing and conduct the service,” says Father Shinu, who is now alerting the members of his church, via SMS, of the upcoming Sunday Easter service which begins at 6 am.

Virtual service

  • Thomas Chacko, author, chorister and a lay speaker, with the CSI Immanuel Cathedral in Kochi, cites from the Gospel of Mathew 18:20 and reasons, “Nowhere does Jesus Christ ask people to congregate in large numbers for prayer.
  • “The order of worship is sent via a link to all members and we join from our homes. Traditionally our service lasts an hour and a half. Half an hour goes in the offertory, which is collection of alms, receiving the Peace, an intangible acceptance of the sermon and its transfer to the faithful and receiving the Eucharist. These do not take place in the virtual service and so it is shorter and lasts only an hour."

Father Anil JT Couto, Archbishop of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, has also been conducting daily mass and the Sunday service virtually in Hindi and English, along with other priests from the parish since March 22. He says, “Lots of adjustments had to be made. All ceremonies that require participation of the congregation are missing, like the procession on Palm Sunday, washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, veneration of the cross on Good Friday and the blessing of the fire at midnight during Easter vigil service.” Though he says he finds it painful to see empty churches, his Easter message this year will be about humanity facing a crisis and coming out stronger.

“In celebrating the holy week, we are observing all norms, according to tradition, as directed by the Vatican. Orders were sent last month to hold holy week services virtually. Pope Francis delivered the Palm Sunday message thus,” says Father Johney Xavier Puthukkattu, PRO-Diocese of Cochin. The aspect that will be missed most, he adds, will be receiving the holy communion, a physical acceptance of the bread and wine symbolic of the body of Christ. The service will instead offer a spiritual communion, a tradition that is practised during times like this.

Palm Sunday Service held at Poolatheen Aramana, Thiruvalla led by The Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan, Supreme Head of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church.
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Special arrangement

Over the past few weeks, the CSI Christ Church, Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram, has been sending audio files of the Sunday worship service (first Sunday after lockdown) to members of the congregation via WhatsApp. According to the vicar, Rev CY Thomas, various members of the congregation collaborate to create the audio file. “For instance, the person assigned to recite the psalm of the day will record it from his/her home and send it to me via WhatsApp. Each member of the choir will sing and record the hymns for the day at their respective houses. The voices are then set to music. All this is formatted into a proper worship service including sermon and prayer.”

The Salvation Army, Thiruvananthapuram, began broadcasting its Sunday worship service live on Facebook and YouTube way before the lockdown was announced. Says Shalu S Babu, a member of Salvation Army Mission Network – India South West Territory: “We started broadcasting our service on March 15 as there were cases of the Coronavirus in the State then. We pre-recorded the entire service, which includes hymns, prayer and a sermon, using three cameras for the Holy Week (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter). It feels strange that people can’t gather to worship, especially during the holy week but one must heed the Government’s advice for one’s own good.”

The Palm Sunday service at Salvation Army, Thiruvananthapuram
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Special arrangement

Dolly Joseph, 60, from Elamkulam in Kochi, has not missed a single Easter service for as long as she can remember. This year she will watch it broadcast live from home, on TV or the phone. The Little Flower church has been uploading the services online. The YouTube link is sent on WhatsApp. Dolly, a homemaker, says Easter is subdued this time and celebration will be confined to cooking a meal at home.

Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Thiruvalla

  • There has been live streaming of the Sunday worship services from the Bishop House in Thiruvalla since the nationwide lockdown. As it is the Holy Week, evening prayers are streamed live on YouTube and on the Church’s Facebook page at 8 pm daily. On Easter, the worship service will be held at 9 am so that believers from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Middle East too can attend the service. The service will be led by the most Reverend Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan.

Palm Sunday was not the same for Bindu Sunny, a member of the St George Forane Church, Edappally, in Kochi, as it lacked the usual ‘participatory feel’. “When the priest opens the doors of the church, on Palm Sunday, we follow him into the church – there is a ‘being part of something huge’ feeling. But this year, although the priest entered the church, we were, metaphorically, left outside as mere spectators,” says Bindu who is Senior Manager at CIAL (Cochin International Airport Limited).

St George Church has its own YouTube channel which streams mass for parishioners, but Bindu accesses her mass on Goodness TV or Shalom TV as she finds television less of a strain. Her 80 year-old mother-in-law is more attuned to catching up with daily mass via television networks, “but of course she’ll miss attending Easter mass”.

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