The coronavirus outbreak has caused nearly every religious organization around the world to rethink how it holds worship services, which typically involve people gathering in a confined space and coming into physical contact with each other.
But in Majority-Christian nations like the US, the question is most fraught for local churches, as they prepare for Easter (Christianity’s most important holiday, which falls on Sunday, April 12, this year). What’s more, many Christian churches practice the rite of Communion using a “common cup” to share wine among the congregation, which means everybody drinks out of the same chalice.
And even beyond communion rituals, most churches practice some variation of the “passing of the peace” — in which congregants shake hands and wish each other “peace be with you.” During Holy Week, which directly precedes Easter, many churches traditionally wash parishioners’ feet, to replicate a moment from the Bible.
But even outside of official forms of worship, most churches are spaces where there are plenty of handshakes and hugs, before and after services. And that’s to say nothing of other gatherings churches might host, like coffee hours after services, fish fries during Lent or soup kitchens for those in need.
This is the tension of Christianity as churches attempt to prepare for Easter while also keeping their congregants safe. (The country of Italy, for instance, took the unprecedented step of suspending public Catholic masses throughout the country.) After all, in times of stress and worry, a house of worship is a place to find community and present one’s fears to a higher power. But what happens if the act of gathering itself only causes more stress and worry?
But some Catholics have also taken to social media to complain about the lack of Mass. “That people have been left without sacraments is a wound. But most understand that it is better not to expose yourself than to risk your health.”
There is still some debate about whether churches should remain open for private prayer. Rome’s bishops ordered churches in the Italian capital closed but swiftly performed a U-turn when Pope Francis spoke out against such “drastic measures.” On Sunday, he demonstrated support for private worship, praying at the church of Saint Marcello, home to the wooden crucifix that was carried through the city in the 16th century — in defiance of rules for gatherings — as a plea for God to end the plague.
There is also confusion about whether priests should visit the sick. Some priests do not wish to put the ill or elderly at risk by becoming vectors of transmission. Italian retirement homes and clinics are closed to visitors, though most hospitals employ chaplains with nursing skills, who are allowed to spend time with patients and administer last rites.
Older priests are advised against visiting the sick because of the risk to themselves, said Father Michael Gaudoin-Parker, an English priest in Assisi, whose doctor has ordered him to stay at home. “Most priests in this area are of a certain age, over 60, because of the crisis in vocations.”
Perhaps the most painful limitation on religious services is Italy’s nationwide ban on events such as weddings, baptisms and funerals. In some communities, funerals have contributed significantly to the spread of the disease; in the southern city of Foggia, at least four people were infected at the funeral of a man who died of coronavirus, and 70 more were quarantined.
Religious burials are not completely prohibited. Families can ask a priest to say a short blessing at the cemetery, with only close family members present.
Nevertheless, Rome-based funeral director Francesco Renzetti said the pain of losing someone was accentuated by the ban on ceremonial funerals. “These are apocalyptic, surreal times. It’s very sad and painful for people, they need that comfort from the family and they are not getting it. It is a terrible situation.”