PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — Expressing “deep concern for the spiritual and physical well-being” of the faithful, the bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in America have urged clergy, religious and all the faithful “to enter more deeply into the very heart of our Christian faith” while following the government’s protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We ask you to celebrate the great mysteries of our salvation in Christ’s death and resurrection at home,” the bishops said. “Together with you, we recognize the sacrifice we are all called to make by being physically distanced from the Holy Week and Pascha services in church and from one another.”
They also urged the faithful to join them “in praying for all who are suffering from the coronavirus, for all health care workers and first responders, and for an easing of the anxiety and tension caused by this pandemic.”
Their statement was issued April 1 from the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The bishops noted that the nation’s civil and health authorities have extended their “stay-at-home” orders until the end of April.
“We encourage you to participate as fully as you can in Holy Week and Pascha services by way of radio, television or livestreamed broadcasts,” they said. “We encourage all the faithful to turn to the church’s treasury of prayer, praying individually or as a family in the domestic church. Christ is truly among us!”
The bishops asked the clergy to continue Holy Week and Pascha, or Easter, services even without the physical presence of the body of the faithful.
Signing the statement were: Metropolitan-Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who is metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S.; Bishop Paul P. Chomnycky of the Eparchy of Stamford, Connecticut; Bishop Benedict Aleksiychuk of the Eparchy of St. Nicholas in Chicago; Bishop Bohdan J. Danylo of the Eparchy of St. Josaphat in Parma, Ohio; and Auxiliary Bishop Andriy Rabiy of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia.
“Trusting in the graces flowing from the celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord, we remain mindful that paschal joy has its source in a personal encounter with the risen Christ,” they wrote. “What did it take for Mary Magdalene’s tears to give way to Easter joy? Nothing less than meeting the risen Christ! The Easter Gospel is not only about Christ’s passage from death to life, but also about the encounter Mary has with the Lord.
“Jesus meets us — calls us by name, opens our eyes, and invites us to see him and be with and in him in the resurrection,” they continued. “No matter where we are or what may be happening in our lives, precisely in the midst of a deathly crisis such as the present pandemic, we are called to spiritual joy through the love of God who conquers death by death and gives eternal life.”
They outlined three steps for Holy Week:
— Participate in the celebration of Divine Liturgies and the blessing of willows and Easter baskets via livestreamed services. “The blessing pronounced in our churches will extend to the respective items in our homes,” the bishops said. “The prayer of blessing is the key element in these sacramental rituals. The faithful who have holy water in their homes may sprinkle it on these items while participating in the prayer via internet or by saying the prayers of blessing alone or together as a family or household.
— The Great Friday Vespers (Good Friday in the Latin Church) with the placement of the Holy Shroud and Resurrection Matins services “ought to take place within the church with no processions. The procession with the Holy Shroud can take place around the altar, and the opening rituals of Resurrection Matins can be conducted in front of the royal doors of the iconostasis instead of at the outside church doors. (The iconostasis is a screen bearing icons, separating the sanctuary of many Eastern churches from the nave.)
— The faithful can continue to approach the sacrament of reconciliation/confession on an individual basis. “Priests should indicate to parishioners when and where they are available for confessions maintaining the prescribed safe distance between priest and penitent,” the bishops said. When confession is not possible, faithful are encouraged to make acts of perfect contrition, “when a penitent sincerely regrets his or her sins, not merely out of fear of God’s just punishment, but because of having offended our loving Lord.”
This year, the canonical obligation of going to confession in the season of Easter can be fulfilled in the time period extending to the feast of Pentecost, the bishops said.
“Our beloved faithful, one day soon, an announcement will be made that we can celebrate the Divine Liturgy and other services all together again,” they said. “We look forward to that joyous day. We will appreciate seeing each other more than ever, giving thanks for God’s gift of communion in the church, the body of Christ of which we are members!”
The bishops said their fervent prayer is that Christ the risen Lord “bestow his peace and grace upon you and your loved ones, upon our community, our nation and the world.”
On April 2 the Ukrainian Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter for Easter, in which they said the greeting of “Christ is risen” this year “resounds in a new and, for us, unfamiliar situation.”
“We find ourselves celebrating, not in brightly decorated churches filled with joyful parishioners, with bells loudly ringing,” they said, “but in the midst of a solitude and emptiness, that has enveloped our world due to the emergence of a virus that remains frightfully confusing for the average person, the virus known as COVID-19.”
“Especially now,” they added, “it is so important for us to hear these words of hope and joy: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs giving life!’ He also grants life to us — who live here and now, in the midst of a quiet world, that seems to have suddenly come to a standstill.”
The bishops prayed that on Easter said our hearts and souls will be filled “with the indescribable and incomparable joy of Our Lord’s resurrection from the tomb. May this joy fill every emptiness within us, wipe away all pain and fear, conquer every doubt and temptation, and remain with us forever!”
“Let us follow the example of the holy women who visited the tomb at dawn on that first Easter morning –distressed with the empty tomb they received the fullness of joy,” they said. “Let us embrace the Risen Christ who comes to fill our emptiness, especially in this time of global crisis. Let us with confidence and in the sureness of our faith, in word and deed, spread the good news of his Resurrection throughout the world!”