A nun attends Palm Sunday Mass at Mary Queen of Apostles Catholic Church in Mirpur, Dhaka, on April 5 as the faithful remain at home during the coronavirus lockdown. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Since becoming an adult, Albert Ashish Rebeiro has missed Palm Sunday in church only once. On April 5, he stayed home with his family and watched the Mass broadcast on Facebook from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka.
Rebeiro, 33, a Catholic and private jobholder, lives in the Mirpur area of the capital with his wife and parents. He and his family not only missed the liturgy on the first day of the Catholic Church’s most Holy Week but also all liturgies except for Ash Wednesday and the Way of the Cross on the first Friday of Lent.
“Online liturgy cannot replace live liturgy. During Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we go to church wherever we are, but the situation is completely different now. We are stuck at home and don’t go outside expect to buy food and medicines,” Rebeiro told UCA News.
“Usually, during this time we go to our home village and celebrate with near and dear ones, and Holy Week and Easter festival refresh our hearts. We are upset as this is not happening, but we have accepted the reality anyway.”
The home isolation of Rebeiro's family is a result of the ongoing shutdown to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic that has infected more than 1.34 million people and killed almost 75,000 across the globe.
Bangladesh has reported 123 Covid-19 cases, 12 deaths and 33 recovered, Health Minister Zahed Malek told journalists in Dhaka on April 6.
About half of the Covid-19 patients are from Dhaka and the rest are from 11 out of 64 districts of the country, according to the state-run Institute for Epidemiology Disease Control and Research.
It is widely believed the deadly coronavirus entered the South Asian Muslim-majority country through infected expatriate workers who returned to Bangladesh in droves recently, escaped detection and reached their homes in urban and rural areas.
The government enforced a nationwide general holiday-cum-shutdown from March 24 to April 14 and banned all public transport and public gatherings to contain community transmission in this overpopulated nation of more than 160 million.
Challenging time for faith
Gita Biswas, 45, a Catholic and primary school teacher from Good Shepherd Cathedral in Rajshahi Diocese in the north, has also been passing the days in isolation with her husband and three children.
Biswas, an ethnic Paharia, said she is sad about not being able to attend liturgy during Lent and Holy Week.
“Nearly three weeks now we have stopped going to church. I cannot remember if I have missed Sunday Mass or obligatory church liturgy in my life unless I was sick. We join online Masses but often we get distracted because the atmosphere at home is not the same as at church,” she told UCA News.
She said Holy Week used to be a time for joyful and spiritual preparations for Easter, but it is missing this year due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
“Now we are trying to get least some flavor by attending liturgy online. It is a challenging time for faith, which we have to accept,” Biswas added.
Sumon Sarkar, 35, a migrant Catholic who lives in the southeastern port city of Chittagong with his wife and a child, has similar sentiments over Holy Week during the time of Covid-19.
“Holy Eucharist is the most important liturgy for Catholics, and it cannot be replaced, but we are in a dire situation when a deadly virus continues to infect and kill people everywhere. However, modern technology allows us to participate in the Mass online, although my baby son is reluctant to sit before computer for a long time,” he told UCA News.
Although for a brief period in times of crisis like this, online Masses can be used as well, he said.
God’s grace during the crisis
The Church is glad to help people participate in online liturgies during the Covid-19 outbreak, said Father Bulbul A. Rebeiro, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Social Communication Commission.
“In accordance with the pope’s announcement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh has approved the broadcast of Sunday Mass and Holy Week liturgy through social media [Facebook Live], which four [out of a total eight] dioceses have been doing officially. The public response has been very positive as thousands have joined,” Father Rebeiro told UCA News.
During Mass Catholics have shown their devotion by preparing altars at their homes and kneeling when required.
“People may not be able to come to the church during this crisis, but they won’t be deprived of God’s grace if they have faith in their hearts,” the priest said.
Besides online Masses, dioceses have announced a “general absolution” from sins on Good Friday as Catholics are required go to confession for sins before Easter, which is also impossible in these circumstances.
Christians, the majority of them Catholics, make up less than 0.5 percent of Bangladesh's population. There are about 400,000 Bengali and ethnic indigenous Catholics in the country.