Bishops will celebrate the Easter Triduum alone in empty cathedrals this year, as Catholics in England and Wales are asked to observe Holy Week at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking at an online press conference on Tuesday the Archbishop of Birmingham and the Bishops of Salford and Arundel and Brighton urged Catholics to join in live-streamed or broadcast Masses over Easter. Cardinal Nichols will lead a service of prayer on Easter Sunday that will be broadcast on all 39 BBC local radio stations from 8am.
The Archbishops of England and Wales are currently meeting online with Cardinal Nichols every week to discuss how innovations such as live-streaming are going, and to plan for the future, including the Bishops’ Conference forthcoming plenary meeting in low week.
The press conference took place as the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was admitted to intensive care at St Thomas’s hospital in Central London after contracting the coronavirus. Archbishop Bernard Longley said the Church was praying for his recovery, echoing Cardinal Nichols, who had said the previous evening: “The Prime Minister has a personal fight on his hands against the vicious coronavirus and needs our prayers.”
Speaking on Tuesday morning the bishops looked forward to Easter as a way to bring the light of the Gospel into peoples’ lives. Archbishop Longley mentioned the work of hospital chaplains in particular, and revealed that ten experienced chaplains from his diocese are preparing to serve patients at the new Nightingale Hospital built within the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.
Bishop John Arnold, who is on lockdown alone in Salford, acknowledged how difficult this Easter will be for priests. “Personally I find it quite difficult preaching to an empty cathedral but I'm getting used to it,” he said. “Most of our priests now live alone and I think we've got to be very mindful of their needs.”
He said that counsellors are available in his diocese to speak to priests dealing with stress or depression. “We've to emerge at Easter not only with a sense of hope but with a sense that we're changing, that we need to be looking at our service as priests in a different way,” he added.
Archbishop Longley, who is locked down with a small community in Birmingham, said that St Chad’s Cathedral will continue to broadcast after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday so that people could join in their prayer vigil. He encouraged Catholics to emulate virtually the custom of visiting different vigils on Holy Thursday by joining different broadcasts throughout the evening.
Bishop Richard Moth, who lives alone a half an hour's drive from Arundel cathedral, said it was “a bit monastic here at the moment”. He went on: “At a moment when for many in our society we're living in a rather dark moment, the gospel can bring a new light. Not just in terms of our spiritual lives, but also in the ways that the Christian community is called to reach out to others.”
During the press conference it emerged that a number of staff have been furloughed in dioceses across England and Wales, including the Archdiocese of Westminster, Salford and Arundel and Brighton. These measures were continually under review, the bishops said.
Archbishop Longley said that the Bishops’ Conference was also very aware of the financial strain faced by priests now that weekly collections are not taking place, but he said that clergy are themselves worried about the financial hardships faced by members of their congregations during the pandemic. “We’re not a special case,” he said, “but we are thinking of asking our parishes to postpone the Easter Collection, which is usually an important part of clergy’s income, until we can gather together again.”
In Ireland the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has called for priests to be allowed access to the state’s special COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment to cover the drop in donations to church collections which fund priests’ salaries.
Fr John Collins, a spokesman for the ACP, told The Tablet that the common fund in the Archdiocese of Dublin, which covers the salaries of the diocese’s priests “will run out” if the lockdown continues well beyond April. Fr Collins explained that he is self-employed, as are most priests, and that he has paid his taxes since he was ordained over 30 years ago.
“If I get into difficulties, I should be entitled to whatever supports are there for the self-employed,” the Dublin parish priest said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection told The Tablet that priests are eligible for the payment if they are under 66 and have lost their employment because of the pandemic.
But Fr Collins said this could necessitate dioceses making their priests redundant, which will not happen as priests are frontline workers and are carrying out funerals and tending to the sick in the pandemic, as well as conducting Masses over the internet and radio.
Fr Collins appealed to people to donate online in order to help address the drop in funds in dioceses.