Public Holy Week liturgies ‘not possible’ in light of coronavirus spread, archbishop says

As the coronavirus crisis in Michigan deepens, parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit will not be able to offer public Holy Week liturgies, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in a letter to priests and faithful March 23. As painful as the decision is, “We believe Jesus is still Lord,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “We believe that God can bring good from this time.” (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Archdiocese of Detroit to follow Michigan governor’s ‘stay home’ order, impacting parishes, sacraments until at least April 13

DETROIT — Given the worsening of the coronavirus spread in Michigan and public efforts to continue practicing “social distancing,” public Holy Week liturgies in the Archdiocese of Detroit are “not possible,” Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in a March 23 letter to the faithful.

Earlier today, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a “stay home” executive order, effectively closing all non-essential businesses and entities in the state through April 13. As of March 23, Michigan had 1,328 confirmed cases and 15 deaths. 

Although the governor on March 21 amended her initial order restricting public gatherings to exclude houses of worship, Archbishop Vigneron said Catholics in southeast Michigan remain committed to doing their part to limit the spread.

“As citizens of this state, we join with our neighbors in observing measures to address the spread of COVID-19,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote. “It is with great sadness that I have to announce to you that Holy Week celebrations will not be offered publicly this year in the Archdiocese of Detroit.”

However painful such news might be, the archbishop noted, “as we continue to practice social distancing to limit the virus' spread, our response as the Body of Christ must always begin in faith.”

“We believe Jesus is still Lord,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “We believe that God can bring good from this time. We believe that we are not abandoned but remain — however mysteriously — in the loving hands of the Father.”

Archbishop Vigneron prays at the altar of repose during Holy Thursday services at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in 2019. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

With many parishes offering livestream Masses for the faithful, Archbishop Vigneron issued a new set of directives for priests celebrating private Masses and liturgies during Holy Week, as well as the celebration of funerals, weddings and other sacraments to comply with the governor’s “stay home” order.

Parish offices to close, sacraments affected

With public Easter Masses postponed, among the most painful decisions is the need to postpone the sacraments of initiation for those in RCIA “until a later date when the fuller community can be present,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

“They have been a part of the RCIA process for many months and they are supported by the RCIA team and parish,” the archbishop wrote. “Part of our Easter joy is the parish seeing and celebrating their entrance into the Church.”

In the case of an emergency, the archbishop noted, a person may be baptized and confirmed at any time.

Among the other restrictions:

  • All parish offices must close and employees, if they are able, must work from home. “Pastors should take precautions to keep their churches clean and open, if they are able, and available for prayer, especially for those interceding for the sick,” the directive states.
  • All funerals and weddings are to be suspended. Priests may consult with funeral directors “when families request the rites proper to funerals,” and graveside services may be permitted as long as social distancing norms are practiced.
  • Baptisms are to be suspended. “Where there is a real danger of death, the person should be baptized in the hospital or home of the parents,” the directive states. “In danger of death, the faithful should consult with their pastors.”
  • Priests should continue to celebrate daily private Masses and to fulfill Mass intentions entrusted to them, as well as to offer Sunday Mass for the people of their parish.
  • Confirmations scheduled for 2020 are suspended until further notice.

Confessions, anointings ‘essential work’ for priests

As “essential work for priests,” confessions and anointing of the sick may continue, with precautions taken to protect the health and welfare of both priest and penitent. 

“The care for souls, particularly those in danger of death, must be preeminent during this pandemic,” the directives state. “Hearing confessions and administering to the sick (anointing and Viaticum for the dying) is essential work for priests.”

Father Michael Bissex gives absolution to a penitent March 21, 2020, in the parking lot of St. Patrick Church in Huntington, N.Y. The parish hosted "drive-through" confessions to accommodate parishioners seeking to receive the sacrament of reconciliation during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Though confession via phone or internet isn’t permissible, priests must take care to practice social distancing — generally understood to mean six feet of separation — while at the same time protecting the sacramental seal. This might mean outdoor confessions, where possible, and the use of protective masks.

Priests offering the anointing of the sick, especially for those in “dire need” or in danger of death, are instructed to use sanitary precautions to avoid spreading illness.

Though the Vatican has raised the possibility of offering general absolution under “grave necessity,” in the Archdiocese of Detroit, “our current conditions do not constitute this ‘grave necessity,’” as pastors are still able to offer sacramental confessions and for chaplains to minister to the sick in hospitals.

“General absolution of this kind would necessitate the gathering of individuals in the same place, which runs counter to the recommendations and directives of health officials and government leaders,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “If it is determined that the conditions expressed in Canon 961§1.2 become present, new directives will be issued by me.”

Canon law already permits general absolution when “danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents,” the archbishop added. In such cases, the penitent must have the intention of confessing serious sins.

Archbishop Vigneron also noted that where sacramental confession is impossible, an act of perfect contrition arising from the love of God and accompanied by the sincere desire to receive sacramental confession as soon as possible, “obtains the forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones.”

(For more on the conditions surrounding an act of perfect contrition, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1452, or this article.)

Holy Week liturgical changes

Priests are instructed to offer private Holy Week services, where possible, with certain restrictions approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, including:

Palms adorn the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament during Palm Sunday 2019. This year, Holy Week liturgies will be closed to the public to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Archbishop Vigneron said. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)
  • On Palm Sunday, palms are not to be distributed in the parish.
  • The annual Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, usually celebrated on Holy Thursday, will instead be livestreamed on the Monday of Holy Week, April 6, at 7 p.m. The Mass will not be open to the public or the faithful, and the consecrated oils will be distributed to parishes by regional vicars.
  • The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday should omit the washing of the feet, and the procession with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose will be omitted. A Mass will be livestreamed from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament at 7 p.m.
  • On Good Friday, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion should omit kissing or touching the Cross, with a genuflection or profound bow instead. A liturgy will be livestreamed from the cathedral at 1 p.m. A Mass intention “for an end to this pandemic” will also be offered.
  • During the Easter vigil, the lighting of the Easter fire and procession into the church will be omitted, and the renewal of baptismal promises will omit the sprinkling rite. The Easter vigil Mass will be livestreamed from the cathedral at 9 p.m.
  • Easter Sunday Mass will be livestreamed from the cathedral at 11 a.m.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Archbishop Vigneron said the faithful remain close to one another in prayer, especially through “spiritual communion.”

“While it is not possible for us to gather in our parishes during Holy Week and on Easter, it is possible for us to be connected in other ways,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “I ask you to remain attentive to and for ways to be connected with each other during these days. I would also ask you to please continue your financial support to your parish. They rely entirely on your contributions and your generosity. I am very grateful for your support, especially during this time.”

Finally, the archbishop encouraged the faithful to join in public prayer for the victims of COVID-19 and for an end to the pandemic on two occasions this week: 

  • On Wednesday, March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, the faithful are invited to pause at noon to pray the Our Father. 
  • On Friday, March 27, the faithful are invited to tune in to Pope Francis’ special “urbi et orbi” blessing from Rome at 1 p.m. Eastern time. The pope will offer a special Eucharistic benediction, with a plenary indulgence for those participating via electronic media.