Following in the footsteps of Pope Francis who is live-streaming ceremonies from the Vatican, the Holy Week is being celebrated world-over, but without the gathering of people. Due to the outbreak of coronavirus and lockdowns imposed in various parts of the world, churches and parishes have taken to holding mass and services for the Holy Week online, something that has never been done before. In the Kolkata metropolitan area, the situation is no different.
On March 20, the Archbishop of Calcutta, Thomas D’Souza, issued a circular stating that all services of the Catholic Church had been suspended till March 31. However, with the announcement of the three-week lockdown that occured days later, the circular was indefinitely extended in compliance with government laws. “It is the Holy Week and it has never happened that the churches have been closed,” said Dolly Jacques, 60, a Shibpur resident. For followers of Catholicism like Jacques, the most challenging aspect of the lockdown especially during this past week, has been their inability to attend mass in church and to partake in the Eucharist, sacramental bread and wine. Neither has she, like many others, been able to participate in the Seven Churches Walk, where people visit seven churches, usually on the morning of Good Friday. “Many who have strayed from the faith, find their way back to the church during the Holy Week. So this week is important,” said Jacques. The lockdown and fears of the spread of coronavirus have also forced people to hold muted celebrations indoors for Easter.
Following the lockdown on March 25, the Archbishop decided to broadcast religious services online. “When the lockdown was declared, we discussed what we could do for our people. We have some talented people working on our website and they came up with the idea of the live-stream,” said Archbishop D’Souza in an interview with The Indian Express. Even before the lockdown started, the team at Archdiocese of Calcutta had started broadcasting some services, with the first being held on March 22. During the Holy Week, the Archbishop said that approximately 11,000 online users tuned in, with some users also watching the services from overseas. One reason for the low numbers may be because each family typically gathers around one device to watch the services instead of logging on using individual mobile devices.
“The Holy Week services have to be done by an ordained priest or bishop. People cannot do it themselves. That is why we are participating in the online services held by the Archbishop,” said Jacques. For the deeply religious like Josephine Gurung, 58, who said she goes to the church whenever possible, the shutdown bringing a halt to church visits during this time of the year has been difficult. “It is very painful to sit in the house and pray while the Holy Week is going on. It is a week where we only pray, pray and pray,” she said. “I dress up at home just like I would if I were going to church. No sitting around in night-clothes while I listen to the Archbishop online.”
For Catholics in the city interviewed by The Indian Express, the spread of coronavirus and the lockdown has also led to a rethinking of how they practise their faith. “This year, the Holy Week has been more meaningful because it is more about spirituality and family, than about who is wearing what clothes to church,” said Efi Biswas, 24, youth president of the Mother Teresa’s Church in Mathkal, near Kolkata airport. With the country under lockdown, parishioners have been compelled to think about their inability to visit churches in person this year because the church doors have never been closed before. Biswas recalled how less than 800 people visited his parish church last year during the Holy Week. This year however, he has observed more parish members actively engaging with the church on social media platforms than ever before.
“Usually we have to plead to people to contribute articles for our Facebook page on their reflections during the Holy Week. But this year, many young people didn’t have anything to do during the lockdown so they contributed many articles on their own for our church,” said Biswas. Having worked closely with his parish church for a few years, Biswas said that he had gotten an opportunity to meet with parishioners in person. “Usually church visits are less about Christ and more about meeting people. But this year, it is about Christ and not us. If you are spiritually strong, then whether you go to church or not does not matter,” said Biswas.
“We can go to church and get them to open the gates, but our leader, the Archbishop, is telling us to stay at home,” said Gurung. Many Catholics in the city said that they are following lockdown rules because of specific instructions from the Archbishop. “Catholics will blindly follow the Archbishop and he is telling us not to go out. Even the Archbishop is maintaining social distancing in the live-stream where the priests stand at a distance from each other,” said Biswas.
Despite the concerns of many followers of the faith, Archbishop D’Souza does not believe that praying from home during the Holy Week is unusual. “If you go back to the root of the religion, people would gather in their homes to pray. The churches were established after communities grew. We call the church at home the ‘domestic church’. So this is not a new concept,” he said. “People don’t go to church only for the rituals. They go to meet Jesus. There is no other purpose.” Religions also provide belongingness and a sense of community, and for many, their inability to go to church may be connected to the loss of community that they may be experiencing during this time.
Archbishop D’Souza said that members of the community should look at the lockdown from a different perspective. “People may not have found time for their families, so this has been a blessing in disguise where they can be together,” he said. “Faith is still alive and that is why we are encouraging them to follow the live-streaming.”
The closed doors of the churches have affected olders members in the community more severely, believes Biswas, because they have never experienced such circumstances before. Praying with the help of online services, away from the church building and the absence of priests has also been unusual and unexpected. For people more accustomed to smartphones and live streaming platforms, however, the occurrence is relatively commonplace. “Many may not agree with online mass. They may be finding it hard to get connected to the church. But more than going to church, it is about your relationship with god,” he said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines