The Timor-Leste Bishops’ Conference has suspended all Holy Week and Easter celebrations in churches as part of efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Instead, they are encouraging Catholics to follow Masses broadcast live via radio and television networks.
This is the first time the Timor-Leste Church has suspended Holy Week liturgy since Christianity was introduced there by Portuguese missionaries five centuries ago.
The bishops made the decision three days after the health ministry confirmed the predominantly Catholic country’s first Covid-19 case.
A few hours after the ministry announced the first case on March 21, Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili suspended Masses and church-related activities in Dili from March 21-28.
However, the bishops extended the suspension of Masses until Easter, including the centuries-old Senhor Morto procession, a Good Friday tradition held since the Portuguese landed in Oecusse in 1515.
The bishops said in their statement, read by Archbishop da Silva on March 24, that their decision was in line with Pope Francis' appeal and measures taken by the universal Church to avoid spreading the virus through church gatherings.
"People can celebrate in their own homes via radio and television. Although they will not receive Holy Communion, they can [unite] through a prayer of spiritual communion," Archbishop da Silva said.
He said the text of the spiritual communion prayer had been distributed to all parishes in Dili Archdiocese and the dioceses of Baucau and Maliana.
Archbishop da Silva said Catholics should not be saddened by the suspension of Holy Week and Easter liturgies but could unite with other Catholics throughout the world in prayers.
He urged Catholics to dwell on the measures taken by the bishops because what is at stake is the health and the safety of the Timorese people.
"In this difficult time, we must do what we can do and leave something that is beyond [our knowledge] in God's hands," the prelate said.
However, seminaries and convents may celebrate Mass in their communities, he said.
In Baucau Diocese, Father Pascoal Natalino Soares Moniz, parish priest of Nossa Senhora da Graca Laclubar Church in Manatuto district, said he would explain the decision to parishioners.
"We have to make sure that people understand," said the priest, whose parish numbers 16,000 people. "People believe that attending Mass is important because the God they rely on is present through the Eucharist. I think people will accept that the bishops have their welfare at heart."
Genoveva Viviana Ximenes Alves, 65, a Catholic woman living in Dili, believes that Jesus is coming to people in different ways during this difficult time. The most important thing is that people must be open to Jesus' presence, she said.