Bishop Douglas J. Lucia celebrates Palm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse April 5. He is joined by (from left) retired Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, seminarian James Buttner (kneeling in front of altar), Deacon Robert Fangio, and Cathedral rector Msgr. Neal Quartier. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)
Catholics began the holiest week of the Christian year today with shuttered churches as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the world. Instead of parades and processions with palms symbolizing Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, Catholics marked Palm Sunday at home, praying alone or watching Mass on TV or online.
Bishop Douglas J. Lucia celebrated Mass in the nearly empty Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. With retired Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, Cathedral rector Msgr. Neal Quartier, and a handful of servers nearby, the bishop sprinkled Holy Water on palm branches that no one can pick up until the danger of infection passes.
“Certainly our prayers for each one of you and for all our sisters and brothers who these days struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bishop Lucia, dressed in red vestments symbolizing Jesus’ blood. “We especially pray for those who are nearest to those undergoing this passion: our doctors, all in health care, along with those who serve our community in different ways. We pray for them that the Lord will continue to give them strength. We pray the Lord will bring healing to those who are ill, comfort to their families. And to those who have died eternal; repose and consolation to their families.”
As morning Mass proceeded, Sunday news shows were reporting updates on the global health crisis that, in about three weeks, has closed businesses, schools, and churches and stretched the nation’s health care system as illnesses and deaths grow exponentially.
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” the cantor sang during the Responsorial Psalm, words that both commemorate the death of Jesus Christ and suggest the fear that may accompany the pandemic.
After the Gospel reading of Matthew’s account of the Passion of the Lord, Bishop Lucia shared a hopeful message. In the same way that people greeted Jesus asking “Who can this be?” the faithful are facing an unprecedented season in which “you and I stand on the sidelines of this year’s Holy Week” asking the same question, the bishop said in his homily.
“Today in the midst of our social distancing, we are invited to be even more keenly aware of our surroundings and who is with us,” Bishop Lucia said. “At first glance, we might conclude that we are on our own in a hostile environment and that even God has abandoned us.”
He pointed to the Gospel account’s passage, “And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt 27:51).
“The sanctuary veil was the curtain that hung between the ordinary people and the holy of holies, the most sacred of all places, and prevented them from seeing what was behind,” the bishop said. “At the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil that sits between us and the inner life of God was ripped open so that we can now see what God looks like inside.”
The cross, he continued, “is the ultimate icon, the real depiction of the holy. It shows us God’s heart, the inner life of the trinity. … inside the cross there is no bitterness, no loss of patience, or lack of graciousness.”
Instead, “When the side of Jesus is pierced what we see, what flows out, is only forgiveness, patience, gentleness, understanding, and warm invitation.”
The faithful are asked to carry that cross during Holy Week, “to become true icons to those lives who may seem separated from us, from you and me, by the curtain in illness, by a veil,” he said. “Together, sisters and brothers, you and I, even in these difficult moments, are being invited to lift the veil by letting the love of the cross be seen in us.”
Bishop Lucia’s daily Mass at the Syracuse Cathedral has been livestreamed since March 19. His Palm Sunday Mass had been viewed more than 1,000 times by early afternoon, and his Holy Week services at the Cathedral will be livestreamed as well.
Since Bishop Lucia suspended public Masses three weeks ago, pastors and parish staffs have moved prayer services and Masses online via YouTube or social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. With varying expertise levels, pastors sought to preserve their parish’s community and illustrate that church is more than a building.
“Welcome to Palm Sunday. It feels awfully strange that you’re there and we’re here. Believe me — we would love to have you here with us,” said Father Christopher Celentano, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in North Syracuse.
Father Celentano urged those watching the livestreamed 10:30 a.m. Mass — which had been viewed more than 600 times by noon — to see this Holy Week as “an opportunity to enter into this mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in a totally new way — and perhaps, an even deeper way.”
Father Celentano cited the words of St. Gregory Nazianzen, a priest of the early Church, as a guide for this Holy Week: “So let us take part in the Passover prescribed by the law, not in the literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally.”
To do this, unite your sufferings to the cross, say no to sin, examine what’s most important, and invite God “into this most uncomfortable time, this most uncertain time, in our lives,” Father Celentano said.
He also offered another recommendation, again from St. Gregory: Read the Passion and find people we relate to, people who acted virtuously.
“If you’re a Simon of Cyrene, then take up your cross and follow Christ this week. If you’re a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion and ask for Christ’s body….” Father Celentano said. “No matter where you find yourself in the Passion, play that role in your prayer and in your life, that we can all come to appreciate more readily the beautiful Paschal Mystery — the death and resurrection of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.”
Father John W. Canorro, pastor of Christ the Good Shepherd in Oswego, opened his homily, livestreamed on Facebook, acknowledging the unusual Palm Sunday.
“Like Jesus in the garden, so many of us feel like we’re in the garden right now, too,” he said. “What’s going to happen? Is someone that I love going to get this disease? Am I going to get this disease? How many people are going to die? We feel like we’re right there next to Jesus.”
The disease reminds people of life’s fragility, he said. “We can look to God and say, ‘thy will be done,’ but none of us know if someone we love will get it. In the end we just pray as God loves, he will be with us, he will help us.”
It’s an uncertain time, Father Conorro said, adding, “Our faith doesn’t end in the garden. It ends on Sunday morning when the tomb is open.”
Father Thomas Servatius, pastor of Historic Old St. John’s in Utica, summed up the day’s readings and the week that lies ahead for the faithful in a short but thoughtful video reflection on his parish YouTube channel.
“During Holy Week, keep in mind that there is bad news, and there is good news,” he said. “The bad news: There’s no such thing as an Easter without a Good Friday. The good news: There’s no such thing as a Good Friday without an Easter.”