FALL RIVER, Mass. — The last several weeks under the cloud of the Coronavirus have been challenging for everyone, with students converting to online learning, people adjusting to working from home, and faithful across the diocese having to go without Mass celebrations or reception of the Sacraments.
It has been particularly poignant during Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, when the Church celebrates Christ’s victory over death. Instead of beautiful ceremonies in filled churches, pastors were forced to think outside the box and make arrangements to hand out palms on Palm Sunday to a “drive-by” line of cars. Dramatic readings of the Passion of the Lord were restricted to two or three readers, echoing within the confines of an empty Sanctuary. The veneration of the cross on Good Friday and the traditional Stations of the Cross were limited to the priest and few others. And celebrants encircled the Easter Vigil fire on Holy Saturday with a lone deacon or parochial vicar in tow.
Despite these constraints, however, parishes have made valiant efforts to live-stream many of the Holy Week celebrations on various social media platforms and Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., in particular, has remained consistently connected to his flock via virtual Liturgies and regular video messages to diocesan faithful.
This year’s unprecedented Chrism Mass, generally attended by all active priests within the diocese in a packed St. Mary’s Cathedral, was essentially limited to the five deans and a few other concelebrants this year. Generally celebrated on the Tuesday of Holy Week, this year’s Chrism Mass was held on the morning of Holy Thursday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, during which the bishop blessed the three oils — Oil of the Sick, Oil of the Catechumens, and the Sacred Chrism — that are used in the Sacraments throughout the year.
“As we bless the oils here today, the first oil we bless is the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Healing, and during the blessing we are going to say that by this holy anointing, may the sick gain strength in their suffering,” Bishop da Cunha said during his Chrism Mass homily. “It takes on a whole new meaning when we hear these words this week. That they gain strength in their suffering and may they be released from fear — and God knows there is plenty around — and receive the consolation of faith. Many people these days have nowhere else to turn but to God and faith. And then we add that everyone anointed with this oil as a safeguard for body, soul, and Spirit, may be free from all pain and from all infirmity and from all sickness.”
The bishop called his brother priests to consider that they are all “wounded healers,” referencing a book title by author Henri J. Nouwen, in which he discusses “an approach to ministry with an analysis of suffering — a suffering world, a suffering generation, a suffering person, and a suffering minister. How benefiting for us to reflect on this duty during these very challenging days, when in some ways we are all wounded.
“Many are wounded because they have gotten sick from the virus. Many are wounded because they lost loved ones, many are wounded because they lost their jobs, and they are uncertain about their future or how to feed their families. We are all wounded at this time. Our world is wounded. We question: when will our churches be open again? When we be able to receive the Sacraments? We as priests feel sad that we don’t have our people at church. We celebrate the Mass and the people feel sad that they cannot come to receive the Eucharist.”
The bishop offered encouragement, however, noting that this pandemic will eventually pass and, when it is over, “we will be better people.”
“And this world will be better. Because if we are better people, we will make this world a better place,” the bishop said. “And I would like to conclude with a quote that was found carved on the wall of an underground prison in Germany during the Second World War, where so many people, especially Jews, would have been thrown down there until they died. But one of those prisoners wrote on the wall these words: ‘I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when there is no one there. And I believe in God, even when He is silent.’”
Prior to Easter Sunday, the bishop released a brief written Easter Message and an uplifting video version — both of which were posted on the diocesan websites and social media accounts. He echoed his sentiments from the Chrism Mass by noting that we should also be focusing on “the joy and happiness that Easter brings.”
“I invite you to see this Easter as a special gift from God and an opportunity He’s given to us over all the other Easters that we celebrated in the past,” the bishop said. “We did things pretty much as usual and then we went back to our own life and things pretty much stayed the same.
“This year, however, we are left with our faith and our hope for better days soon. We have gone through a real Lent of tremendous sacrifice — but we cannot lose faith or hope knowing that this crisis will pass. When it is over, we can rebuild our world and our lives. Counting on God’s help and with strong faith, we will be better people and build a better world.”
The bishop also likened Christ’s transformative Resurrection to our own experience once we “get to the other side of this crisis.”
“Not only is Easter very different than all the others this year, but we will be different,” he said. “We are going through a situation none of us has ever seen before, and I believe that we and the world will never be the same again. If this transformation actually happens, then this was the most important Easter of our lives, a time of real transformation, and a new beginning for us and for our world.”
During a beautiful Easter Sunday Mass celebration inside St. Mary’s Cathedral that was live-streamed at 10 a.m. and later rebroadcast on WLNE-TV at 11:30 a.m., the bishop noted that Eastertide continues for 50 days through Pentecost Sunday, and he urged everyone to use these remaining days to “experience the presence and the power of the Risen Lord in our lives, to experience the presence of God in our lives and in our homes, to pray and reflect on what all of this means to us.”
“Many are in quarantine at home,” he said. “We probably have more time to do some reflection and thinking. We have more time to pray, more time for family sharing and conversation, talking to each other, and praying together as family. Jesus asked us to carry our own cross with Him during this long Lent. This has been a time when we confronted the reality that our lives are fragile. This has been a time for us to reflect on what really matters and what makes life truly worth living.”
And just as Christ’s suffering and death were the necessary bridge to eternal life, the bishop suggested this pandemic will eventually lead to something better.
“Easter is the proof that evil does not have the last word as it did not have the last word in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago,” the bishop said. “Neither will the Coronavirus have the last word in 2020. Easter reminds us that we are living in this world, but our eyes are set on Heaven. Jesus did not suffer and die to make us culturally Catholic. He died to make us true disciples, to make us saints, to make us holy, to call us to change and conversion each day.”
In closing, Bishop da Cunha invited everyone to view this Easter as “a special gift and opportunity that God has given to us to renew ourselves and to change the world.”
“What we are living now, Pope Francis told us recently, is a place of metanoia — conversion — and we have the chance to begin again,” the bishop said. “Yes, in the midst of all this, we find light, hope, and life because we believe that Jesus conquered death, that He is truly risen. And so, we can rejoice and say, ‘Alleluia!’ This is truly the day the Lord has made. Let us celebrate, rejoice and be glad!”