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Christians prepare to embrace a virtual Easter

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Two years ago when Father Marco Casella was assigned his first parish he decided to reinstate a tradition that had long disappeared in the small Sicilian town of Mirabella Imbaccari.

The 32-year-old Catholic priest organised a Holy Week procession to celebrate Easter, asking residents to recreate the last moments in the life of Jesus including a crucifixion staged in the town’s main square.

“The whole community was involved and has had a very active role in the recreation,” he says. “All of my parishioners started studying the Gospels, to be as accurate as possible with the details, from the clothes they were wearing to the lines they had to recite.”

This year, with Italy and other countries across Europe under lockdown as they grapple with the coronavirus outbreak, Father Casella’s re-enactment has been cancelled. Churches across the country will be closed for the first time in living memory during the most important festival in the Christian calendar.

In the UK, St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which is believed to have last shut its doors for Easter when Oliver Cromwell’s troops used it as a stable in the 17th century, has cancelled its extensive list of Holy Week services. 

“I’m pretty confident this will rank up there with the worst things [in the cathedral’s history], but we won’t be able to tell until later,” said Paula Gooder, chancellor of St Paul’s. 

“It’s almost impossible to get your head around not being able to be in your church to celebrate Easter,” she added, “although we totally understand why we can’t.”

St Paul’s Cathedral has cancelled its Holy Week services, having last shut its doors in the 17th century © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Pope Francis is holding multiple events over Holy Week online and on television instead of addressing crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square. 

Priests across Italy are using WhatsApp groups and other social media to stay in contact with their parishioners. Some are sending digital prayers for each other and photos of the Virgin Mary.

At St James’s church just off Piccadilly Circus in London, Rector Lucy Winkett is planning to livestream a 6am solo service on Easter Sunday from the church’s garden, with the help of an “extraordinarily long Ethernet cable” and her laptop.

But new methods can bring challenges: one vicar in Plymouth, in south-west England, accidentally set his jumper alight with candles while leading an online service recently.

The decision to keep the faithful away from Italy’s churches has not been accepted by all. Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migration League party, last week called on churches to be reopened across the country for Easter, prompting anger from some priests and politicians.

“I support the requests of those who say they should be able to enter the churches — albeit in an organised way and keeping safe distances — for Easter Mass. Perhaps a little at a time, four or five,” Mr Salvini said.

Dino Pirri, an Italian priest with a relatively large social media following, wrote on Twitter: “Dear Salvini, today the churches are closed because we priests respect the laws of our country. We obey our bishops, and not you”.

The League leader’s political opponents were also quick to accuse him of opportunism in calling for churches to open for Easter.

Pope Francis himself has said that respecting the lockdown measures was important, and that he was continuing to work during the crisis by using technology.

People watch Pope Francis’s ‘’Urbi et Orbi’‘ (to the city and the world) blessing © Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

“We are sticking to the measures ordered by the health authorities,” he said in an interview with the Tablet this week. “Everyone works in his office or from his room, using technology. Everyone is working; there are no idlers here . . . I’m living this as a time of great uncertainty. It’s a time for inventing, for creativity”.

In Italy’s small towns priests are following the Pope’s example in trying to find alternative ways to celebrate the life of Jesus.

Father Casella in Sicily says he has blessed and disinfected palm twigs and distributed them to the six supermarkets in town so people can take them and bring them home, as well as using social media to communicate regularly with his parishioners.

“It is an occasion to sharpen our wits,” he says. “Our parish choir has recorded a song which we shared on our Facebook and YouTube channels. We also have other multimedia projects in the pipeline. One of my parishioners has written and recorded a prayer in our local dialect to be shared on social media. And all masses will be streamed online.”

While Italy’s first digital Easter has kept the faithful connected with the Church during a time of great difficulty, no priest believes social media and streamed sermons from the Pope can ever replace the intimacy of gathering together to worship.

One particular problem for Catholics and Anglicans alike is whether or not holy communion — sharing bread and wine to commemorate Christ’s sacrifice and a key part of Easter day services — can be celebrated when believers cannot meet in person.

“There’s a great big theological debate among Christians about whether you can celebrate holy communion remotely,” said Charlie Thomson, associate vicar at St Mark’s in south London. “Some groups break bread and share wine over Zoom. My personal view is that it’s meant to be communion, so how can you celebrate it when you’re not together?”

Father Marco echoed those sentiments: “Humans are made of signs and physical contacts. If we take this away from the dimension of the faith we risk losing an important point of reference for the community.”

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