Arkansas diocese cancels public Triduum services, but keeps ministry alive

Little rock cathedral St. Andrew Cathedral, Little Rock. | Valis55/wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0

As efforts to thwart the coronavirus pandemic continue, one diocese has announced that public Masses will be suspended until after the celebration of Easter, and that only new Catholics entering the Church will be permitted at parish and diocesan Triduum Masses and services.

The Easter Triduum is regarded as the high point in the Church's liturgical year. But the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, told CNA that while it is difficult to keep Catholics away from Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, it also seems necessary.

"We made this decision out of an abundance of caution," Deacon Matt Glover, Little Rock's diocesan chancellor, told CNA.

"This is a preventative measure for our more vulnerable populations," Glover added.

The measure was announced in a March 12 letter from Little Rock's Bishop Anthony Taylor. While numerous dioceses have announced this week the suspension of public Masses, Taylor's was the first letter to make specific mention of the Easter Triduum. Many other dioceses have suspended public Masses until the weekend of Palm Sunday, apparently hoping to resume services for Holy Week.

"While COVID-19 is unlikely to be serious for most people, we have an obligation to care for the very young, the aged, and those with compromised immune systems. And the best way we can care for them is minimizing large group gatherings for the time being," Taylor wrote.

Those entering the Church at Easter will be permitted to attend Triduum services, while others will watch online or on television.

Glover acknowledged that there have been only few cases of COVID-19 in Arkansas; as of Friday there are six documented cases in the state. But he said that the diocese wants to be sure not to contribute to the viral spread. He added that if COVID-19 does not become widespread in Arkansas, the diocese will reconsider its decision.

"In two or three weeks time, if things go well, COVID-19 is contained, with no community spread, then there is nothing to say that we wouldn't lift the prohibition, but we made this decision to be cautious," he added.

The deacon said that some people in the diocese have expressed gratitude for a proactive decision. But he acknowledged that others have expressed frustration.

"I would be upset if there weren't people upset," Glover told CNA. "It's a sign of people's strong faith when they're upset that they can't go to Mass, receive the Eucharist, or attend Triduum services," he added.

Glover said that the Diocese of Little Rock is trying to make the best decisions possible, with the information available. He said he thinks that's true across the Church. But he said he also recognizes the approach of his diocese might not prove correct.

"We recognize that it could be that we're way too early on this, and it could be that other places are way too late on this. I don't think anybody would claim to have the definite right way to handle this."

"I think diocesan leaders across the country are all just doing the best we can to balance the pros and cons, to make best decisions for the faith of Catholics, and for public health," he said.

The deacon told CNA that Bishop Taylor and chancery staff will continue to watch what's happening in the state, and they'll look forward to hearing from pastors.

"We might make pastoral adjustments going forward," Glover said. "We want to hear from priests in the field, and from other leaders, about what's working and what's not."

The deacon said that while Masses are suspended, Arkansas priests are not sitting idly.

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"We've seen priests take the initiative on offering confession and on other things. We hope to build on that [across the diocese].  We want to see what works."

He said that priests have increased their confession times, begun making more home visits, offered more frequent anointing of the sick, live streamed daily Masses, and found other ways to stay connected to their parishioners.

The deacon said pastoral work amid the trial of a pandemic is impressive.

He also said that while Masses are suspended, the Diocese of Little Rock is concerned that parish and diocesan employees not suffer financial consequences.

"The parishes who rely on passing the collection basket, as opposed to electronic giving, will see numbers go down the longer things last," Glover said, noting that many rural parishes operate on very thin budget margins.

"We just have to keep an eye on things. We don't want parishes to suffer financially for it, or the lay staff, who are already underpaid in most instances, to be hurt even more."

Glover said the diocese is "beginning to think about those bigger picture things," as it responds to the pandemic, and will consider the best ways to help parishes survive the pandemic. The diocese is also concerned for employees, he said.

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"We're advising pastors to allow staff to telecommute, work from home. We don't want any of our staff people missing wages. That's the message that we're sending out," the deacon said.

While diocesan and parish leaders make decisions about how best to handle an unforeseen circumstance, Glover said he, and Arkansas' bishop, will continue to listen to parishioners, and look for creative ways to serve the Church's mission.

As the pandemic becomes a national emergency, other dioceses may find themselves looking to Little Rock for lessons.

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