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Protesters outside the B.C. Supreme Court with signs demanding church services be allowed. Photo by Agnieszka Ruck

B.C. government flip-flop on worship restrictions over Easter weekend frustrates faithful

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • April 7, 2021

VANCOUVER -- The 96-hour rollercoaster of emotions for Catholics gearing up for Easter this year ended on a low note.

On March 25, just days before the start of Holy Week, health officials announced religious organizations could safely open their doors to indoor worship for four days, as long as they kept to numerous precautions including 10 per cent of capacity or a maximum of 50 people.

It wasn’t exactly what Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, had been hoping for (he had sought an exemption for Catholics for 10 per cent of church capacity, without the 50 person or four-day limits) but it was something.

The archbishop said Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and Divine Mercy Sunday would be the indoor Masses in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, and pastors and parish staff kicked into high gear to arrange as many Masses during those four days as they could manage, some preparing to open up school gyms or parish halls to accommodate as many people as possible.

Catholics who had been barred from indoor public worship since before Christmas were enthused by the opportunity to attend at least one Mass again, inundating parishes with reservations.

Fr. Steny Mascarenhas had arranged for 19 services across four days at St. Edmund’s, including seven Masses crammed in the schedule for Easter.

“You would not find room to register. Practically, all services were full,” he said.

By March 29, all those plans were undone. B.C. officials rescinded the health order variance they had offered to religious groups days earlier, banning indoor services before any had started. They also imposed a last-minute order against indoor dining at restaurants and indoor group fitness activities.

B.C. health officer Bonnie Henry attributed the measures to high daily COVID-19 case numbers, which hit 996 on March 26 and surpassed 800 in the two days that followed.

“Now, we feel so disappointed,” said Mascarenhas, while Fr. Maciej Wos, SDS, said in a message to parishioners at St. Clare of Assisi the community’s “great hopes” for Easter were short-lived.

Mass this Easter looked very much as it did on Christmas day: accessible to most Catholics only through livestream while pastors celebrated Mass in empty churches.

Some pastors greeted the news with understanding.

“We’re called to a sense of creativity for these moments and to realize that Christ is our hope,” said St. Patrick’s pastor Fr. James Hughes. “Yes, it is disappointing, but we cannot be like the disciples who went away toward Emmaus from Jerusalem ... with their heads down. As Christians, we can’t lose hope.”

Some parishes, including his, have been holding drive-in Masses, permitted by B.C. officials as long as attendance at each outdoor parking lot service is limited to 50 cars with passengers, plus 50 people. Private prayer with up to 10 persons inside the church is also allowed.

Meanwhile, about 170 Catholics continue to meet outside Holy Rosary Cathedral every Sunday to sing and pray aloud for public worship to restart again. Some hold signs saying “church is essential” or “freedom for public worship.”

Matthew Palmer, one of the organizers, told The B.C. Catholic that for some people, the outdoor gatherings are a vital part of their religious practice.

“I get people every week that say, ‘if it wasn’t for this pilgrimage, I would have no means of worshipping.’ It’s a very small substitute for the divine liturgy and for the Holy Mass and the Eucharist, but we’re called to keep holy the Sabbath day,” said Palmer.

The group began gathering after indoor worship was banned by a B.C. health order Nov. 19. Palmer said many are committed to gathering every Sunday until the order is lifted, admitting it may be a while until that happens.

“Among the organizers, but also amongst the people that come, there’s a certain resignation, that we’re in this for the long haul. One of the bright sides is we’re going into the fair weather period. We’ve persevered through snow and rain pretty much every week since we started.”

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