FOR the first time in living memory, the province’s Catholic bishops have cancelled public Easter gatherings and moved all services to a virtual format due to the novel coronavirus.
All public masses and assemblies until the end of April, including Good Friday services and Easter celebrations, are cancelled in the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of Winnipeg and Saint Boniface and the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg.
"We don’t believe this will be cleared up by Easter," said Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg of why public services are suspended leading up to the most important season for Christians.
"It is very significant but people understand."
He does not recall such a cancellation of services on this scale, even during the SARS or H1N1 crisis.
Manitoba has 250,000 Catholics in four dioceses.
During restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parish priests will celebrate mass privately each day, something Rev. Geoffrey Angeles did for the first time on Thursday in the otherwise empty St. Mary’s Cathedral, which seats 850.
"In one sense I felt we were all in this together and that my prayer was on behalf of all people who couldn’t be there," he said by phone after the private mass.
Parishes are encouraged to livestream services or encourage their members to tune in to online broadcasts from cathedrals. Gagnon plans to preside over mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday, March 22, while Archbishop Albert LeGatt leads at St. Boniface Cathedral. Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Lawrence Huculak leads divine liturgy at St. Anne Ukrainian Catholic Church since the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral is not yet set up for livestreaming.
Huculak said the situation reminds him of when he helped the Vatican broadcast Ukrainian-language radio programs from Rome to Ukrainian Catholics living under the restrictions of Communist rule in the former Soviet Union.
"Now we’re recommending people follow us by livestream," said Huculak, who lived in Rome from 1974 to 1986.
"This is the way for them to get their spiritual nourishment."
In the four-page protocols, both Gagnon and LeGatt said Catholics are dispensed of their obligation to attend Sunday mass from March 22 to April 26.
The protocols also cancel all public meetings, baptisms and first communions and suggest weddings be postponed. Priests will continue to conduct funerals, limiting attendance to immediate family members, but no public receptions can be held after funerals.
Catholic churches will remain open during specified hours to allow people to pray privately, but seniors and people with serious medical conditions are encouraged to stay home.
Similar measures will be released today by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, which serves northern Manitoba and most of northern Saskatchewan, a spokesperson said Thursday afternoon.
During this time, Gagnon encouraged Catholics to continue to pray for their neighbours, medical professionals and people who are sick.
"We’re looking at this as an opportunity to practise our faith, to pray for our community and to look at the value of prayer at home and the reading of Scripture at home," he said.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.
Updated on Friday, March 20, 2020 at 1:33 AM CDT: Adds photo