Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller will broadcast Easter masses at San Fernando Cathedral this year. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

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The springtime holidays of Easter and Passover traditionally involve people coming together for religious observances, family picnics and traditions, and fun and games for the kids. But precautions against the spread of coronavirus will mean a different kind of observance this year.

Following a meeting Tuesday with church officials, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller announced he is extending the suspension of all public celebrations of mass through April 30, including during the upcoming Holy Week and Easter celebrations.

In keeping with his guidance to area Catholic churches on March 13 that canceled masses and other events due to the coronavirus outbreak, this year’s Holy Week events, which begin Sunday, April 5, will be limited to no more than 10 people in churches across the 19-county Archdiocese.

“The limit of 10 persons is to be taken extremely seriously,” Garcia-Siller stated in the decree.

Local Jewish synagogues have also announced changes to the way they will celebrate Passover, an observance of the deliverance of the ancient Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. This year’s Passover starts April 8 and continues for eight days.

Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest emergency orders, churches are exempt despite there being the possibility for large gatherings during services. However, most San Antonio religious leaders appear to be aligning with local ordinances that limit gatherings of no more than 10 people.

In the Catholic Church, Easter Sunday is often the most well-attended Mass of the entire year, said a spokesman for the archdiocesan office.

In a decree to local parishes, the archbishop outlined special guidelines for church pastors, starting with how palm branches will be blessed for Palm Sunday. The rules state that any palms that are used for the liturgy should be blessed before Mass and left in the church office for parishioners to pick up at a later time.

Other traditions celebrated during Holy Week will be eliminated entirely this year.

On Holy Thursday, April 9, the traditional washing of feet will be omitted from the Mass in accordance with a March 25 decree from the Vatican. On Good Friday, the 10 congregants in attendance at any Mass will not be allowed to handle or kiss the crucifix.

During the service, special prayers for those who are sick or have died of coronavirus will be included.

The annual Passion Play held at San Fernando Cathedral on Good Friday has been canceled. The play involved actors dressed as Roman soldiers and mourning women processing through downtown to re-enact the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

On Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the usual procession has been eliminated from the Mass celebration, which is also limited to no more than 10 people.

García-Siller commended the many parishes that are streaming their Sunday masses, and released a schedule of masses that San Fernando Cathedral will broadcast via Catholic Television of San Antonio (CTSA) and all archdiocesan social media channels.

“We look forward to a time of renewed connections and concrete closeness, to a time of healing from the wounds of this COVID-19,” he stated.

Local families and the rabbis who lead San Antonio’s 10,000 Jewish people are also planning new ways to mark Passover and maintain social distancing.

Amy Kroll began preparations weeks ago for the interfaith Seder feast she hosts annually for friends at her home during Passover. But with social distancing in mind, she will divide the bulk quantity of matzo, a type of unleavened bread, she ordered online among friends. Kroll plans to host a digital Seder dinner via Zoom with family living in California and Maryland.

Amy Kroll unpacks matzos she ordered for Passover. She normally hosts a Seder for her friends in San Antonio, but is hosting a Passover Seder with her and her husband’s families on a Zoom video conference this year. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

She’s also writing a special text, known as Haggadah, to recite at the Seder reflecting the unusual circumstance of quarantine during a holiday traditionally spent together with friends and family.

Likewise, local synagogues Congregation Agudas Achim and Temple Beth-El are planning to livestream Seder services as they encourage members to stay home.

“It’s going to be a new experience, but we feel like this is the best way we can connect with people during this particular time,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Agudas Achim. “We don’t want to encourage people to be going to each other’s homes. That would be going against all the rules and ordinances that have been put out there.”

Abraham said that two weeks ago leaders of his Conservative movement made a ruling that, due to the pandemic crisis, allows congregations and families to use technology, such as for livestreams, during this year’s Passover observations. “We weren’t allowed to do that previously,” Abraham said.

While many people were upset about the circumstances in general, he added, “Now we’re in a position more of accepting that this is the new norm and appreciative that we’re offering something that could still bring people together, even if it’s virtually rather than rather than not having anything.”

Abraham has been drawing from the story of the Jewish people escaping slavery and crossing the Red Sea together to freedom in order to encourage his congregation to work together, but apart, to make it through the coronavirus crisis.

On Sunday, he livestreamed a prayer service for a member of the congregation who he said is seriously ill with coronavirus and on a ventilator at a local hospital.

“The hardest part has been that I can’t just go over to their house and give [the family] a hug, which is what I would want to do,” Abraham said. “Not being able to do that and having to do it all through a phone call or … text messaging is difficult.”

In addition to holding an online Seder, Rabbi Mara Nathan of Temple Beth-El said her congregation is working with San Antonio Jewish Senior Services to make sure the homebound will have traditional unleavened and kosher foods for Passover.

Nathan said she’s been reminding her congregation to focus on generosity and compassion during the crisis.

“For a lot of us, the uncertainty of this whole situation is what is one of the most unsettling pieces,” Nathan said. “The story of the Jewish people that we celebrate at Passover is one of overcoming great adversity and facing uncertainty in our lives and being brave enough and having enough faith to move forward.”

Protestant churches throughout the city are also planning to stream worship services for the Easter season, including Wayside Chapel, which is planning a Good Friday evening service and two services on Easter Sunday. Though Community Bible Church canceled its “Easter at the Alamodome” event, the church offers worship services at its website, onlinechurch.com.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.