Pandemic Prompts Slight Changes to Holy Week Observances


By Tony DeGol

What a difference a year makes.

Last Holy Week and Easter, public Masses were not celebrated due to the pandemic, leaving Catholics without the privilege of being in the pews at the most solemn time of the liturgical year.

This year, whether parishioners mark the upcoming days in church or through TV and live-streaming Masses, the faithful are strongly encouraged to truly immerse themselves in Christ’s journey to the cross and ultimate victory over sin and death.

Take one of the accounts of the Lord’s passion or readings either from the Easter Vigil, suggested the Very Reverend Alan Thomas, VG.

“Think over the event we are celebrating, which is Christ’s own Passover from death to life,” he advised. “Christ goes through death, and he makes it subject to time so that death is not the end of the story. The end of the story is resurrection. I think if we can grasp that movement a little more deeply it becomes the basis for the ongoing growth in our own spiritual life.”

Father Thomas is the Vicar General of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the Pastor of Saint Michael Parish in Hollidaysburg and Administrator of Saint Mary Parish in Hollidaysburg.

Like all pastors, he is preparing to walk with his parishioners through Holy Week – one which will see slight changes to liturgical celebrations to accommodate the demands of physical distancing and ensure the safety of clergy and parishioners.

Among the directives issued by Bishop Mark is permission to have musicians, song leaders, and choirs during the Liturgies. All should follow established procedures regarding masks, physical distancing, shielding, and other precautions. Choirs, musicians, song leaders and directors of liturgical music are reminded to reduce the number of verses and shorten music appropriately so as not to prolong indoor gatherings.

As previously announced, palms are not to be distributed or made available prior to Masses on Palm Sunday weekend.  Palms are not to be placed on tables for people to take themselves. Rather, ushers or other volunteers are to hand them to people at the end of Mass as the exit the church.

The washing of feet is not to occur during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. At the conclusion of the Mass, it is recommended that those who have participated in the Liturgy remain for a period of adoration and reflection.

On Good Friday, the faithful may approach for the veneration of the cross while keeping the proper distance. The cross is not to be kissed. The proper reverence would be a bow or the sign of the cross.

“I think either of these signs have a good heritage,” said Father Thomas. “They are both ancient ways of showing our worship to Christ, so this year even if we don’t touch the cross or kiss the cross we can still use some very significant signs to worship the cross of Christ.”

For celebrations that are live streamed, the priest should invite viewers at home to look to a crucifix or another image of Christ crucified.

On Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil may begin as early as 4:00 p.m., according to the Bishop’s directives. The faithful will not be invited to gather for the blessing of fire, and they will not hold candles.

“What little fire there might be will be blessed inside of the church,” according to Father Thomas. “There will still be a procession of the candle through the church with the acclamation announcing the light of Christ and our response to that. It’s not the full symbol we would like to have, but it’s something.”

Only a small amount of water should be blessed during the Vigil. Fonts in the church are not to be filled with holy water until further notice. Prefilled bottles of water may also be blessed at this time for the faithful. 

All are invited to safely participate in Holy Week observances at parishes throughout the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, but the faithful are reminded that the obligation to attend Sunday and Holy Day Masses remains waived by Bishop Mark until further notice. Those who are present at parishes are asked to wear a mask and practice physical distancing.

As always, the Proclaim! TV Masses on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday will be broadcast live from Saint John Gualbert Cathedral in Johnstown at 11:00 a.m. on WATM ABC 23 with Bishop Mark as celebrant and homilist. The Liturgies will be rebroadcast on those nights at 9:00 p.m. on Atlantic Broadband channel 9 and posted on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown website and Facebook page. Various parishes will also offer live-streaming or recorded Masses on social media and/or their website throughout Holy Week.

Editor’s Note: The Very Reverend Alan Thomas, VG, will further outline changes to expect at Holy Week liturgical celebrations this year on the Palm Sunday, March 28, edition of Proclaim! TV at 10:30 a.m. on WATM ABC 23.] 

[Photos: (Top) Father Richard Tomkosky, Pastor of Saint Thomas the Apostle Parish in Bedford, lights the Easter fire at the parish in 2019. This year, because of the pandemic, the faithful will not gather outside for blessing of fire, per directives from Bishop Mark. (Inset) Very Reverend Alan Thomas, VG.]