PROVIDENCE — Following a directive from R.I. Governor Raimondo and the state’s Department of Health that all churches planning to distribute palm branches on Palm Sunday not make them available for health reasons related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, in a letter Friday to pastors across the diocese, urged parishes to comply.
Msgr. Anthony Mancini, rector of the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul, had been planning to place the bunches of palm branches that were blessed by Bishop Tobin earlier in the week outside the cathedral for pickup by the faithful on Palm Sunday morning.
But he understands the significance of what is being asked of the churches to discontinue the distribution of palms in light of the deepening health crisis across the state and around the nation and the world.
“I wish we could have done it … but we all have to cooperate because this is just such a dire situation,” Msgr. Mancini said.
“So I think our cooperation is important.”
The rector said that the cathedral parish will place the blessed palms aside for safekeeping for now, and will perhaps distribute them to parishioners once they are able to safely attend Masses again.
Given the large numbers of Catholics across the diocese, with many of them being in the age brackets considered to be at the highest risk for succumbing to COVID-19, the rector decided to discontinue distribution in order to keep everyone safe.
“Those are precisely the people who would come first,” Msgr. Mancini said, of those who would venture out of their homes to receive palm branches.
At St. Michael Parish in South Providence, Father Robert Perron said he has discontinued plans to distribute palm branches on Sunday for the safety of his parishioners.
“I totally agree with the governor,” the pastor said.
At Our Lady of Loretto Parish in East Providence, Father Dean Perri said that after Bishop Tobin asked priests to comply with the directive given by the governor and health officials, he cancelled his planned distribution of palms.
“Palms are merely a sacramental and I would prefer to give out Communion rather palms,” the pastor said.
In Tiverton, at Holy Ghost Parish, Father Jay Finelli said he plans to bless all the palms that he had planned to distribute this weekend and store them in the plastic bags they come in until the churches are open again.
He said he feels badly for those across the diocese who have taken the decision to withhold the distribution of palms to heart.
“From what I have seen on Facebook, some people are pretty upset,” he said.
“They feel like they have nothing left. Maybe our Lord is allowing this so that we know how precious the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church are. And in the future, maybe we won’t take these gifts for granted.”
Reaction has been mixed among people posting comments about this topic on the Diocese of Providence Facebook page.
Olivia Germano noted that she did not feel that this decision was an infringement on the religious rights of the faithful.
“This is a responsible leader of our Diocese ensuring that we do not continue to spread this disease … there are people walking around with the disease that exhibit no symptoms at all and those can't be tested for COVID-19,” Germano wrote.
“No one wants to celebrate Holy Week and Easter as normal more than I do. However, we need to make this sacrifice now, so that this disease is stopped in its tracks and we can get back to our community worship sooner than later,” she said.
Beverly A. Jolicoeur wrote that everyone must deal with the difficult situation we’re in.
“No one wants you not to have palms but the Governor and the Bishop do want you to be safe. We have no idea if someone is a carrier and doesn't know it. PLEASE listen to our government officials and together we can beat this war, hopefully sooner rather than later,”’ Jolicoeur wrote.
Amanda Marie Prado, however, made an analogy between going to the grocery store to pick up food and supplies — a public activity that has not been curtailed — and picking up palms.
“If we can pick up food at the grocery store then we should be allowed to pick up palms with the same precaution! This is an infringement on religious rights!” Prado said.
Priscilla Sayward agreed with Prado.
“We can buy liquor, buy guns, and pick up food, but not receive pre-blessed palms from the gloved hands and masked faces of our priests. It was a small comfort for those of us already devastated by the loss of the sacraments,” she wrote.
Helene Letizia said that the ultimate objective right now needs to focus on stopping the spread of the virus.
“These are difficult times. I miss Mass & the Eucharist, I am a daily mass goer, but we need to make sacrifices, offer it up for an end of this terrible time,” Letizia wrote.
Diana Ricciotti-Scorpio said that although receiving palm branches on Palm Sunday is a blessed event, attendance at this critical time is not a necessity. Instead, the ultimate goal should be for everyone to focus on bringing an end to the transmission of the virus so that regular worship can return to normal.
“People need to stay home if we are ever going to see an end to all this,” she wrote.
Father Jaime Garcia is pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Providence, where cars of dedicated parishioners and others pull up to the church parking lot each day to participate in Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Despite the strong and continued devotions of the faithful at the parish, the pastor said that cancelling the distribution of palms this year was the right thing to do.
“We’re going to follow the direction of Bishop Tobin and the governor and the Health Department. [The parishioners] know and they follow the directions very carefully here at St. Charles,” he said.
Father Joseph Pescatello, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Cumberland, said that while he had longed to make palms available for his parishioners, hearing of the increasing spread of the virus made him rethink his decision.
“We were just going to put them out today and then again tomorrow, but after seeing the governor’s daily press conference, I started to have second thoughts about how to control gatherings and what to do if there is contamination,” he said.
On Thursday, he decided to cancel the distribution.
“It’s too bad, but I understand why we have to do it — it’s to save lives,” Father Pescatello said.
He said that, like many of his fellow pastors, he would save the palms for distribution once the faithful are able to return to Mass.
“They’re disappointed, but at the same time they realize that this is the reality we’re in,” he said.
To Father Pescatello, the celebration of Palm Sunday without being able to partake in its traditional attributes, such as the grand entrance procession into the church — symbolic of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem — followed by the blessing and joyous distribution of palms among members of the congregation, seems incomplete anyway.
“It’s more catastrophic that we can’t get together to celebrate Palm Sunday. That’s the bigger issue.”
At St. Francis Xavier Parish in East Providence, parishioners found a way to achieve a sense of normalcy in a time of unchartered waters this Palm Sunday morning.
The parish reached out on Facebook asking parishioners to search their backyards for a green plant or branch that they could place at their front doors as a symbol of their solidarity as they celebrate Palm Sunday together in prayer.
Parishioners have begun posting images of leaves, plants and branches fashioned in the shape of a cross on their front doors.
St. Xavier Pastor Father Jorge Rocha and Assistant Pastor Father Nathan Ricci were inspired to encourage this expression of solidarity at their parish after learning about how priests in the United Kingdom were similarly celebrating Palm Sunday this year.
“Although we cannot be together physically, we are united spiritually as members of the same Body of Christ, the Church,” said Father Ricci, who also serves as assistant chancellor for the Diocese of Providence.
Assistant Editor Laura Kilgus contributed to this story from the Rhode Island Catholic Online Desk.
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