Parish priest Father Vinod Kanatt celebrates Mass at his St. Ann's Church in Rajkot Diocese of Gujarat state for those who died of Covid-19. (Photo supplied)
When Bonita Fernandez was invited to attend a special prayer service remembering her late father, she never expected the entire parish to join the service and change her image of Catholic community life.
As she entered St. Ann's Church in Junagadh, her parental parish in Rajkot Diocese of western India's Gujarat state, she found eight portraits of parishioners who had died of Covid-19 in the past year.
One of them, placed beneath the altar, was of her father George D’Souza, who died of a black fungus attack on June 13.
Each portrait was garlanded and kept on chairs covered with white cloth — four each on each side, leaving the central path free for the priest to distribute communion without hindrance.
The eight-day memorial service, with one day dedicated to each of the deceased, replaced the parish’s annual novena and feast.
“I have never seen such a memorial service in any church in my more than four decades of Catholic life,” Fernandez told UCA News on July 27.
How is it possible for us to celebrate when eight of the 65 families in the parish are mourning the death of their dear ones?
She had to travel close to 100 kilometers from Rajkot, where she now lives, to her parental parish to attend the special memorial service, a day before the official feast of the parish's patron saint, St. Ann.
Parish council member Patrick David said they “celebrate the feast of St. Ann with pomp and piety, with a lot of illumination inside and outside the church. It ends with either a lunch or dinner for parishioners.”
However, the parish decided to convert the feast to a memorial service after the pandemic claimed eight parish members. “Such a tragedy never happened in our parish,” David told UCA News on July 27.
“How is it possible for us to celebrate when eight of the 65 families in the parish are mourning the death of their dear ones?” he asked.
Parish priest Father Vinod Kanatt said Catholic families “are very close-knit in the parish and they always stand with each other at times of happiness and sorrows.”
Father Kanatt, of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate congregation, told UCA News on July 26 that the parish council unanimously agreed to convert the novena prayer and feast to a memorial service.
Parishioners joined the Mass and offered special prayers for the departed soul of each person who died, keeping his or her portrait in front of the altar.
As Covid-19 restrictions were eased in the area, Catholics maintained physical distancing. The small church celebrated three Masses on the feast day as it could not contain all members at one time.
On July 25, a day before the feast of St. Ann, parishioners celebrated the feast as a memorial service. The actual feast day was on July 26, a working day. The parish advanced the feast day to avoid inconvenience to those who had to attend offices.
Three members of the family of John Santan D’Souza — himself, his wife and a daughter — died from Covid-19. The lone remaining daughter, who is intellectually disabled, was moved to a home run by Missionaries of Charity nuns in Rajkot.
“We also kept their portraits and prayed for them especially, though nobody from their family was present in the church,” said Father Kanatt, known as the cycling priest as he moves around his parish on a bicycle to visit families.
We generally come together to celebrate our achievements and happy moments, but this is the first occasion I found a parish coming together to pray for its lost members in a very special way
Fernandez, a schoolteacher and mother of two young boys, said the memorial service was “a lifetime memory for me.”
“I am a catechism teacher in my parish and I will share this experience with all my catechism students,” she added.
“When my father died, many people could not attend his funeral as more than 10 people were not permitted on account of Covid-19 restrictions. Now, with this memorial service, I think we have compensated for that. People who could not attend his funeral came to us and consoled and shared our sorrows.
“We generally come together to celebrate our achievements and happy moments, but this is the first occasion I found a parish coming together to pray for its lost members in a very special way.”
The event gave Fernandez and her family “a special courage and strength that we still have people to care for us,” she said. “This is what the Catholic community should be.”
Sister Viyagula Mary, the local superior of the Carmelite Missionaries who has lost one sister to the pandemic, said the parish has set “a great example of sharing sorrows. It is an example other parishes can emulate.”
David said the memorial days were an “occasion for us to console” the families and hold them “together as one family as people still live in fear of the third wave of the pandemic in our country.”
Father Kanatt said the pandemic has put the parish's tradition “on hold this year, but it cannot put a hold on our prayers.”
“When the thought of death is uppermost in our minds, praying for the dead brings us closer to the Lord,” the priest said.