By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
Public Holy Week celebrations, including Easter Masses, in the Syracuse Diocese are canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Douglas J. Lucia announced March 20. The move followed a rapid increase in the number of confirmed cases of the disease across the United States and state regulations to limit spreading the coronavirus.
In addition to canceling all public gatherings for Mass, prayer, Faith Formation, and certain parish activities, the faithful remain dispensed from the obligation to participate in Sunday Mass. Public liturgies for Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday are canceled and to be celebrated by priests in private.
“Allow me to extend to you the powerful words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when they were in the midst of a storm on the water, being tossed about in a boat by the wind and the waves: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matt 14:27),” Bishop Lucia wrote in letter to the people.
“We are, indeed, in turbulent times, being tossed about by the waves of this pandemic,” he continued. “We are hindered, but not prevented, in our ability to be nourished and to respond spiritually. Nevertheless, we should not be afraid. The Lord is with us.”
Updated diocesan policies came the same day New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced additional policies aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Cuomo told New Yorkers to stay indoors as much as possible and ordered all nonessential businesses to keep all workers home. Those measures go into effect Sunday.
More than 7,800 confirmed cases of the coronavirus had been reported in New York state by Friday afternoon. That includes at least 20 cases in the diocese’s seven counties. The numbers are likely to increase quickly as testing expands, officials said.
In the diocese, the ordination of three diocesan seminarians to the transitional diaconate, scheduled for April 18, will be postponed to June 19, and the ordination of 14 permanent deacons, scheduled for April 25, will be postponed to a fall 2020 date yet to be determined, according to diocesan Chancellor and Director of Communications Danielle Cummings. Celebrations of First Holy Communion and Confirmation are postponed, and details about rescheduling them are forthcoming.
The April 6 Light is On campaign, which encourages participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is canceled. General Absolution is not permitted.
The diocese’s chancery offices will close and allow only “very limited essential personnel access to the building for essential services,” Cummings said in a March 20 email to staff. Parish offices and rectories should follow the same procedure, the email said. Staff will work remotely to the extent possible.
Catholic Charities’ “essential services will remain intact,” Catholic Charities CEO Michael F. Melara said in a video message to constituents March 20. Food pantries, emergency services, and Syracuse’s men’s shelter “remain available to members of our community who are most vulnerable and at greatest need,” he said. Catholic Charities serves more than 100,000 people a year across the diocese.
Parish food pantries may continue to operate, according to Cummings. “As long as we can provide emergency assistance in a safe manner and comply with the State directives, we want to be present to those most in need,” she told the Sun.
Churches and parish facilities, such as food pantries and offices, may remain open with limited personnel following the guidelines of the local government and the Centers for Disease Control, Cummings’ email said.
In addition, the pope has granted special indulgences to the faithful who are in quarantine and health care and family members caring for the sick.
In the diocese, Bishop Lucia also dispensed Catholics from the obligation of abstaining from meat on Good Friday and the remaining Fridays during Lent “to assist those for whom the practice of abstinence is difficult at this time, for example, because of the current shopping situation.” The law of fasting on Good Friday remains in effect. “It is important that the remaining days of Lent continue to be days of penance and prayer,” the bishop wrote.
Details about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and other policies announced Friday will be provided by the diocese in the days ahead.
Several dioceses in the United States have canceled public Holy Week services, including the Archdiocese of New York, and Brooklyn, Rockville Centre, and Ogdensburg dioceses.
The Diocese of Brooklyn Friday closed all churches in Brooklyn and Queens and announced two priests had tested positive for the coronavirus. Ten people who attended diocesan services or events also tested positive, the diocese announced. No funerals, weddings, or baptisms will be permitted in churches.
Bishop Lucia on March 16 announced that all public Masses in the diocese were suspended. The diocese has been livestreaming daily Mass celebrated by the bishop, and some pastors plan to livestream Masses and use social media to continue youth and adult education programs.
Msgr. Neal Quartier, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, acknowledged in a March 19 video message the sadness, grief, and fear the faithful are experiencing as the global health crisis suspends Masses.
“I know this is very, very difficult for so many, not to be able to come together and share,” he said, sitting on the altar stairs in the empty cathedral.
“We have to come together as the human family, as the Christian Catholic family, as the global family, to be present to each other, to care for each other, to make sure that we don’t spread our germs,” he said.
Ahead of the first weekend without public Masses, parish staffs were working on ways to continue ministering during the pandemic. Catholic school teachers were working out the details of how to instruct students online until at least April 14.
Dozens of parish events scheduled for the next few weeks have been canceled, including fundraisers, fish fries, bingo, and parish missions. Lenten women’s retreats scheduled for this weekend at Holy Cross Church, DeWitt, and Our Lady of Good Counsel, Endicott, were canceled.
“Almost everyone I spoke to is very disappointed and said they look forward to it every year,” said Nancy Huffaker, chair of the diocese’s Commission on Women in Church & in Society. “It’s a beautiful time to pray together during Lent. We’re going to miss that.”
Huffaker hopes the commission will be able to present its annual conference, scheduled for October 22. For now, she finds solace in the canceled retreats’ theme: “Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry.”
Father Jim Mathews, pastor of St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse, expressed sadness in an email to parishioners. “My dear Parishioners,” he wrote, “I looked out last Sunday and saw no people, no cars & no life in front of St. Lucy’s.
“It was a shock to my system,” he continued. “It made me realize how important it is for me to be with you, to worship with you, to exchange stories and smiles of the past week and celebrate that God’s presence is always with us.”
Several St. Lucy’s events and programs have been canceled or suspended in light of diocesan and government policies. The parish will continue its food pantry, adjusting operations to follow safety procedures.
“We have been in the desert before,” Father Mathews wrote, referring to the 1998 Labor Day storm that damaged St. Lucy’s Church, “and we have emerged even stronger as a people. This is just another challenge we as the People of God face – and we will once again emerge stronger as a believing Christian Community.”
Editor Katherine Long contributed to this story.