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A Sri Lankan novena amid pandemic restrictions

Prayers, procession and sermons were transformed for the digital age by the Covid-19 pandemic

A Sri Lankan novena amid pandemic restrictions

Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Kadawala wears a deserted look even as it celebrates the church feast on Sept. 19 without any devotees due to Covid-19 restrictions in Sri Lanka. (Photo: UCA News)

Surrounded by her grandchildren, Sujeewa Geethani, 52, settled in a chair in front of her house to take part in church services during novenas every day.

The novenas began at 7pm but Catholics could not attend the prayer services in their parish churches due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Like Geethani, Ruwani Nisansala decorated the streets with her children for the evening procession on a feast day.

The sense of community was palpable, with many villagers gathering even while taking care to follow precautions to reduce the risk of infections.

Nisansala, a leader of the local community who collected money to decorate the streets with flowers and special lighting arrangements, said the coronavirus pandemic had halted all parish feasts since January.

Sri Lanka was designated a red zone due to the high prevalence of Covid-19 infections and went into lockdown on Aug. 20. The lockdown was lifted on Oct. 1 but a night curfew remains along with a ban on public gatherings and parties.

Flags are hoisted for the feasts. The priests give sermons on different themes every day and the faithful listen from home

Father Srikantha Fernando, parish priest of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Kadawala, celebrated the church feast on Sept. 19 without any devotees.

Parish priests in villages have been using loudspeakers to enable the faithful to listen to sermons since there is no way Catholics can physically participate in Sunday Mass, feasts and other church activities.

Everything from Sunday schools, classes for the first Holy Communion or marriage preparation, church services and priestly meetings is being conducted via social media.

Father Fernando’s sermons during the novena reached the faithful in the village through loudspeakers and social media.

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“Flags are hoisted for the feasts. The priests give sermons on different themes every day and the faithful listen from home,” Nisansala said.

Father Fernando has been urging the faithful to try and make the feast in the midst of a pandemic as meaningful and blessed as possible.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith appealed to Catholics across the island nation to recite the rosary on the occasion of the birthday of Mother Mary on Sept. 8 to help heal those infected by the deadly virus.

Father Michael Colin, parish priest of Our Lady of Matara, said the festivities this year were low-key with no transport arrangements and accommodation facilities provided for the pilgrims.

“Although it is not possible for you to attend the feast, we are praying for you all,” he sought to assure the dejected pilgrims through a message relayed on social media.

Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe of Galle was the chief celebrant at the festive Mass attended by only a few priests and nuns at the beautifully decorated church. 

“Keep your distance during the Covid-19 pandemic and pray constantly from home,” Bishop Wickramasinghe urged the faithful.

We continue to pray to Mother Mary to protect our lives and give us the opportunity to visit our sacred places

Aruni Wasanthi, 53, a member of Legion of Mary, said Catholics had vowed to visit some churches. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible this year due to the government-imposed restrictions on travel.

“We continue to pray to Mother Mary to protect our lives and give us the opportunity to visit our sacred places,” said Wasanthi.

Health authorities said 46 percent of the country’s population was fully vaccinated but because of the high prevalence of the virus even they may be at risk of getting infected and spreading the disease.

Infections are decreasing, with over 1,000 new infections reported on average each day in the past few days. But the number of daily infections needs to come down to 950, according to authorities.

There have been 515,524 infections and 12,786 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began. The casualties include priests, nuns, doctors, nurses, politicians and singers.

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