LEICESTER, United Kingdom – As England prepares to celebrate Holy Week, the secretary of the bishops’ conference liturgy office says the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is making everyone “aware now that they are in this together.”
Like much of the world, England will be celebrating the most sacred part of the Church calendar in isolation. Priests will perform the liturgies, but behind closed doors; the United Kingdom is in lockdown, and the government has ordered all houses of worship to stay closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“I have been priest for over 28 years and quite frankly this is a new one on me. I think we are all learning,” said Benedictine Father Paul Gunter, who serves as Secretary of the Department for Liturgy and Worship, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“None of us actually knows [the best course of action], so we are doing the best we can with circumstances we would never have chosen, but which have to be for all of us a moment of grace because ultimately our purpose is to support one another and make God better known and loved,” he said during a conference call with journalists.
He noted that the rites of Holy Week will be altered slightly due to the fact the people will not be present at the liturgies, but the spiritual meaning would not be lost.
“Palm Sunday there will be no blessing or giving of palms, of course, because there are no faithful present,” the priest said, giving an example. “Does that mean, for example, that our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem won’t be commemorated? Not at all! In fact, the faithful will unite themselves, not only at from their home, but also in the prayers that are pronounced in the liturgy.”
Gunter also encouraged families to pray at home – “The family that prays together, stays together” — and didn’t offer any objections to them celebrating certain traditional practices, such as the washing of the feet, within the home.
“People are finding their own ways of uniting themselves to Easter,” he said.
The priest noted that Easter is not just about celebrating Our Lord’s salvation but also “the fraternal charity to which we are called to make him present,” and noted the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown has made that apparent in different ways.
“The Church is anything but shut down; if anything, we have to realize just how we have to reach out differently,” he said.
Gunter is also the parish priest of Our Lady and St Joseph in Alcester – near the birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire – and despite the church building being closed, he is still there for his flock.
“I have been going on the walk that we are allowed to have to take exercise – what I jokingly call Boris’s walk [after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson] – and I tap on the windows of the people I know who are housebound, particularly in the villages, and they come to their windows, if they can hear or if they are able, and they open the top window, and we chat for a while. Then they are less isolated and it’s an opportunity for me to ask them if they need anything,” he explained.
He also pointed to “an enormous army of people who are just volunteering and showing extraordinary initiative” in the country in the face of the pandemic.
“I hope we are all learning, at least I am having to learn constantly, how important it is to be kind, how important it is to listen, and to learn a different kind of human availability,” Gunter said.
When asked by Crux whether the Church hierarchy was making plans on when it would be safe to open the church buildings, even for private prayer, Gunter said it was too soon to speculate.
“It is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.
“At this particular moment, moved by pastoral charity, we are concerned to avoid epidemiological spread. We hope, and we pray and we follow guidance, but I couldn’t possibly say when the churches will be open again,” the priest said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome