St. Michael's Cathedral in downtown Toronto is seen behind a statue of Mary with the Child Jesus. Michael Swan

As virus sweeps globe, Church keeps the faith

  • March 25, 2020

Catholic dioceses around the world are preparing for a  Holy Week of empty churches and virtual liturgies — and Easter Masses with empty pews — amid widespread global shutdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ll hold Holy Week no matter what,” said Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, “but how we hold it has to be adapted to the circumstances.”

Collins concedes it is “highly unlikely” that life will be back to normal in time for the holiest time of the year in the Catholic Church. On March 24 he ordered the total closure of every church in the Archdiocese of Toronto.

“We will not be having 300, 400 priests altogether celebrating Mass at the cathedral, which is the way we want to do it,” said Collins, referring to the annual Chrism Mass.  “We will celebrate it somehow, in a manner that in this rare and extreme situation requires adaptation. We’ll adapt, but we will continue.”

As recently as early March, few could have imagined the situation the Church — and the world — finds itself in, Collins said. Yet here we are, with all Sunday and daily Masses cancelled for who knows how long as health authorities battle the deadly pandemic.

Around the globe, people have (for the most part) shut themselves indoors to avoid  a virus that has infected more than 390,000 people and killed over 17,000 worldwide, including 24 Canadians as of March 24. One option not on the table is cancellation of the April 9-12 Holy Week.

Holy Week and Easter can not be postponed or suspended, said Pope Francis, who issued a decree March 20 regarding how the Triduum and Easter liturgies must be celebrated even if churches are empty.

In places where public Masses are cancelled during the heart of the liturgical year, bishops must ensure the liturgies still take place in cathedrals and in parish churches, even if the priest is alone in the church.

It’s a strange circumstance that the Mass has been shut down, but not one without precedence in Canada and the western world. A century ago the Spanish flu closed churches.

Even today, there are parts of the world where persecution against Christians or a shortage of priests prevents people from celebrating the Eucharist. Yet the Mass survives, and thrives, said Collins.

“As the early Christians said when the persecution cut the Mass off, without the Sunday Mass we can’t continue,” said Collins in an interview with The Catholic Register after taping the Daily TV Mass at the Loretto Abbey chapel in Toronto.

“But Christians have always continued.”

The cardinal is celebrating a live-streamed Mass each morning from St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. He is encouraging Catholics to join him in the celebration (

Neil MacCarthy, director of public relations and communications with the Toronto archdiocese, said consultations are ongoing to determine how Holy Week will play out.

“At this time, it would seem that having public celebrations for those events will be challenging,” he said. “That said, we really are trying to take things week to week and assess the situation based on the advice and counsel of the medical experts.” 

It’s a challenging situation to be taking instruction from government authorities that affect something as integral to the faith as Holy Week and Easter celebrations, but it’s understandable and one Collins accepts.

“When the government or the health authorities are guarding the common good, they have every right. This is a totally legitimate requirement of the government, absolutely legitimate,” he said. “This is absolutely sensible. 

“As I often say, God put our heads in so prominent a place in our bodies that He wants us to use them.”

Other dioceses find themselves in the same conundrum and making plans for Internet live-streaming. 

London Bishop Ronald Fabbro has cancelled all Masses and services, including missions and devotions, in his diocese until April 30. He said churches must work with others in the community to minimize COVID-19’s spread. 

“We are making these sacrifices out of charity and for the sake of the common good,” said Fabbro. “I encourage all our faithful to be vigilant about personal cleanliness and keeping appropriate distances from others.”

Matthew Clarke, senior communications consultant for the London diocese, said “certainly live-streaming them (Holy Week services) from the cathedral or another — or multiple — locations is in the works.”

Deidre Thomas, assistant to Peterborough Bishop Daniel Miehm, said cancellation of Masses was met initially with some resistance that “was angry and sometimes strident,” but for the most part feedback has been positive.” 

But with hard times comes opportunity.

The Mass has always been readily available for Catholics, and maybe that hasn’t always been appreciated.

“I think we Catholics have taken the Mass for granted and now it’s a wake up call to cherish it,” said Collins.

And it’s not just the Mass we’ve taken for granted, he said, but our lives overall. The fear evident on the streets (witness people emptying store shelves in a panic) shows people have a fear of death — understandably so.

“It’s a sign, all our anxiety at this time, is a sign that people recognize life is not to be taken for granted,” said Collins. 

“We have not realized that we don’t just sail along. Nobody is promised tomorrow…. Maybe it’s time for us to wake up as people do in times of crisis.”

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