Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Palm Sunday Graces in the Urgent Care

A few days before Palm Sunday, I injured my left shoulder while exercising. By Saturday night, the pain was so bad that I could barely sleep, so on Sunday morning I called the consulting nurse, who recommended urgent care. Julie, my wife, took me in, early in the morning. This was not how I had hoped to start Holy Week. "Lord," I thought, "what more will you take away from me?" For over 20 years, the liturgies of Holy Week had been the focal point of the year for me. But this time, thanks to the virus, they were taken away. The liturgies, the celebrations, the family gatherings - all taken away. "And now, Lord," I thought, "will you take away the use and comfort of my body too?"

But then I thought, during Holy Week, we especially reflect on the suffering of Christ - his suffering for us. The best way to enter into Holy Week is to unite our suffering with his. Suffering has tremendous spiritual value. It is through suffering that we die to self and learn to love with a pure heart. We can also offer the spiritual value of our suffering up for others, as Christ offered up his suffering for us. Feeling completely miserable at the start of my Holy Week, I decided to offer up my suffering for healing in our families, for healing in the world. I added, "Lord, thank you for deeming me worthy to suffer for you."

Urgent care felt like a ghost town. I was told that there were other patients there, but I could see only medical staff. Julie had to stay in the waiting room, while I was escorted in. I was examined and X-rayed in a relatively short amount of time. As I waited for the doctor's diagnosis alone in an urgent care room, wearing a gown I could not tie in the back because of my bad arm, and an N95 mask that made breathing really hard, I continued to feel thoroughly miserable, but I kept offering up my suffering, and I focused on praying the Rosary.

When the doctor came, he ruled out major injuries, diagnosed the problem as an inflamed muscle, and prescribed some medications, as well as an at-home care routine. I was soon able to rejoin my wife in the waiting room. She was watching a livestream on her phone - the Palm Sunday Mass from St. Stephen the Martyr in Renton, the parish she attends. (I work at a different parish and I usually go to Mass there.)

We went over to the pharmacy, where, as we waited, I joined her in watching the Mass. The few others also waiting at the pharmacy, appropriately distanced from each other, didn't seem to mind that we had the volume on. I was able to see the Eucharistic Prayer. I prayed the Our Father with Julie. We exchanged the sign of peace through our obtrusive masks. We made Spiritual Communion together. In between these moments, I also picked up my medication. No one seemed to mind that even after picking up the prescription, we just stayed sitting there, watching the Mass.

Again, back on Ash Wednesday, this was not how I would have envisioned the start of my Holy Week. But the grace of God could still come to us through that small iPhone screen, and through the prayers the two of us made, gathered in our Lord's name in that pharmacy waiting room. Christ still found us. The Holy Spirit still entered our hearts. And as I made my Spiritual Communion, while holding in my hands a small bag containing medicine for my body, I knew I was receiving much more important medicine - medicine for the soul.

Photo Credit: Top photo: At the urgent care with Julie. Bottom photo: Our Palm Sunday display in quarantine. By Zoltan Abraham (c) 2020.

How to Lead a Prayer Meeting over Zoom

With most of our parishioners in quarantine, it is crucial that we reach out digitally to connect our community. In my role as Pastoral Assistant for Adult Faith Formation at a Catholic parish, I have used the Zoom app to facilitate RCIA, Bible Study, Book Club, Small Church Community meetings, and lots of prayer sessions. We have prayed together the Rosary, the Seven Sorrows Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Angelus, and the Regina Caeli. In this post, I would like to offer some suggestions for leading prayer over Zoom, on the basis of my experience.

Prepare using the following steps:

● To begin, familiarize yourself with the software. Do a practice session or two with a friend or colleague to get the hang of using the app, including the security features and the various ways that people can log in.

● Send out an invitation with detailed instructions for how to access the Zoom session. Let them know of the different ways they can participate, but emphasize that logging in through a laptop or tablet provides the best experience. Remind them that Zoom is a video conferencing software, so they and their immediate surroundings will be seen. (However, there is a way to add a digital background, for those who do not want to use their own home as a backdrop.) Also advise them that the Zoom application picks up ambient sounds, so any side conversations or background noises are likely to be heard.

● In your invitation, send out any prayer materials that you would want the participants to use during the session. Do not wait to give these out over the chat feature once the meeting has started, because some of the participants will not be able to access chat messages easily or at all given their device and their mode of logging in.

● Offer technical support. Many of your prospective participants will not be very tech-savvy. The idea of Zoom might be intimidating for them. However, luckily, Zoom is very easy to learn, even for those with very little mastery of technology. One way you can help is offer to walk people through setting up Zoom on their device. You could schedule individual practice sessions, where you guide them through the set-up over the phone, until they are able to log in to the session.

● You might run into a situation where someone has a video connection through a computer and can hear everything on their end, but might have no built in or external microphone through which they can speak to the group. In a case like this, the workaround is for them to establish the video connection, mute the audio on their computer, and then call in through one of the phone numbers associated with the session for the audio participation. In this situation, it is essential that they turn off the sound on their computer, otherwise you will get an echoing effect.

● If you are planning on repeated meetings, set up a distribution list through which you can send out the login information for your session. Even if the login information is the same as before, some participants will not be able to find your prior email and will need a new invite every time.

● Before the meeting, set up a nice, prayerful background for yourself or select an appropriate digital background. Make sure others who might be living in the same space know of your session, so they will not interrupt. Have everything near that you might need within easy reach, so you don't have to get up during the session, including, depending on the session you are leading, your Rosary, prayer guides, Bible, water, coffee, etc. I know from personal experience that it is easy to forget even the most basic and most frequently repeated prayers while leading a group, so I make sure that I have the text of all the prayers in front of me, including basic ones such as the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

● As far as possible, use a laptop to facilitate the meeting in order to have more options and control as you facilitate. Open any websites you might need, either on your laptop or on your phone. Open the various platforms through which people communicate with you, and have your phone in front of you. People might send you last minute messages asking for help to log in.


● Say a brief prayer before you start the session.

● Start the meeting on time.

● Welcome people by name as they log in.

● If some participants do not have video capability, read off the names of all the participants.

● Set the Zoom app to gallery view, which provides the best way to oversee the meeting. Encourage others to select gallery view as well.

● Click on the icon for managing participants, which will bring up a list of all those in the session as a sidebar on the right hand side. Having the list of participants displayed will help you later in managing the session.

● If someone has video capability but doesn't know how to turn on their video feed, you can manually send that person a video request, which can help them turn it on more easily.

● Some participants will require a certain amount of technical support as they are logging in, in order to fix some glitches or errors. Use your best judgment as to how much technical support you want to provide in the moment. On the one hand, you want to be inclusive. On the other hand, you don't want to hold the meeting up for too long to solve one person's problems. You might need to suggest politely that you can help the person in question troubleshoot the problem at a later time, after the session.

Divide Up the Prayer:

● Zoom does not lend itself to the traditional call and response style of prayer used in the Catholic Church and many other communities. For example, when praying the Rosary, we are accustomed to one person saying the first half of each prayer, and the others responding together. This will simply not work in Zoom, because the app cuts back and forth among the speakers, and if several people are speaking at once, we end up with a jumble of voices.

● The best is to divide up the prayer into sections and have each person say the words for that entire section. For example, when we pray the Rosary, the leader prays the introductory prayers, the closing prayers, and the reflection before each mystery. Then others take turns praying an entire decade, saying all of the prayers of the decade, all the way through. The rest of us either pray in silence or we mute ourselves so that we can say the response out loud, without creating a jumble of sounds.

● At this point, you can also put some prayer materials in the chat, but remember the caveat mentioned above, that not all participants will be able to access chat messages.


● As the prayer leader, it is very important for you to stay focused on everything happening in the session. Also, since most, if not all, of the participants can see your face, you should appear attentive.

● One way to manage audio as the prayer starts is to mute the whole group, and then those who are about to pray can unmute themselves. This approach is especially helpful if you have a lot of participants, with a lot of background noise. However, some people dislike being muted, but they are very good about remaining silent, so it's not an issue if they are not muted. Use your best judgment for each meeting as to whether or not you need to mute the whole group, except for the speaker.

● In any case, if not everyone is muted, be ready to mute people individually if their background suddenly becomes noisy, if they start having a side conversation with someone off screen at their location, or if they start saying the prayers out loud when someone else is leading. They can always unmute later.

● Some people might keep unmuting themselves, but you can block this by using the setting that prevents participants from unmuting. Once you mute someone, you, as the host, cannot unmute them. However, you can send them a request to unmute, which will override the other settings.

● Make sure people are unmuted when they start their section. You can remind them gently to unmute and can also send them an unmute request.

● During the session, keep an eye on the channels of communication through which people usually get in touch with you. Someone who has not yet logged in might send you a message five minutes in, asking for the link to the session. Or someone might text you to say they cannot participate but would like the group to pray for a specific intention.

● As mentioned above, sometimes people forget even the most basic prayers when praying in front of others. As people are praying, be prepared to help someone out if they forget how to say a given prayer. Don't embarrass them. Let them know that it has happened to you too.

● Sometimes the person leading at the moment develops technical difficulties or has to leave because of a problem they need to deal with on their end. Be prepared to jump in to finish off the section.

● If someone has to leave before the session is over, thank them for participating for as long as they could. If they just disappear suddenly, try to message them later to check in with them, just to see if everything is okay.

● If an emergency happens on your end, and you need to step away for a moment, ask someone familiar with the group process to take over for you for a minute. Just remember that they won't have the same controls over the Zoom application as you in your role as the host. If for some reaosn, you need to leave altogether, you can make someone else the host, so they will have full control over the session.


● I used to start my meetings with a check-in, but eventually we realized that it is better to do the check-in toward the end. That way, those who have just enough time to stay for the prayer can do so, and the rest of the group can take its time sharing at the end. I ask the participants the following questions: How are you doing spiritually, psychologically, and physically? What would you like us to pray for? Depending on the situation, I will add other questions, like: What did you do to celebrate Easter in your home? Many people are very lonely during this time of quarantine, and they need a forum to talk about themselves, especially their spiritual life. Do not begrudge participants the time it takes for everyone to check in. For many of them these few minutes might be the highlight of their whole day.

● I start the check-in by asking if anyone has to leave quickly, and I invite them to go first. For the rest of the participants present, I find it best to call on each participant according to the the order in which everyone appears on my screen. However, sometimes the order can shift a little, because Zoom puts people with a video feed first, then those with audio but no video turned on, and last those who are calling in through a phone connection, so if someone turns off their video even for a brief time, their position in the order of participants will change. To make sure that I didn't miss anyone, I ask at the end of the sharing if everyone has had a chance to share. I always share last myself.


Before you end the meeting, take a moment to make announcements about upcoming opportunities that might be relevant to your group. Invite others to make similar announcements too.


Thank everyone for participating and say good-bye. I usually say something along the lines of: "Thank you all for coming. God bless you. See you next time!" I give people some time to say good-bye. In these last moments, everyone is talking at the same time, with the inevitable jumble of sounds, but it is okay. After waiting a few moments, I click the option for ending the meeting, and we are done.


After the meeting, follow-up with any participants you offered to help with technical difficulties. If you promised to send out some information or certain resources, make sure you do so. If someone had to leave abruptly, reach out to them. If someone seemed especially distressed, get in touch to see if they need any help. Continue your prayer by praying for all the participants in your session.

Photo Credit: Our Lady over the Earth. Source unknown. This image has circulated widely on the Internet.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Holy Week in Quarantine: How to Celebrate the Holiest Season of the Church in Our Homes

The world is about to enter the most surreal Holy Week in living memory. Public Masses are cancelled. Catholic Churches are closed, some entirely, some open only for private prayer for a few hours. But being in quarantine does not mean that we cannot enter into the spirit of Holy Week. Below are some practical suggestions for observing Holy Week in the home.

Livestream: As far as possible, livestream the liturgies of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. So many churches are livestreaming now, that you will have many to pick from, but preferably watch the broadcast offered by your home parish or diocese or the one from the Vatican. Keep all of these days holy. Don't do any menial work. Don't engage in any form of entertainment that would contradict the spirit of these days. Make sure to observe the fast and abstinence on Good Friday. Traditional, Holy Saturday was also kept as a day of fasting until the Easter Vigil, so you should consider making this a day of self-denial too. Dress up for watching the livestreams as if you were attending the liturgies in person. Participate as fully as you can by singing, saying the responses, and doing the physical gestures.

At Communion time, make an act of Spiritual Communion using the beloved prayer by St. Alphonsus Liguori:

My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most holy Eucharist. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen

If for some reason you are not able to livestream the liturgies, I would still encourage you to set aside a special time each day for Spiritual Communion. You may wish to follow my Guide to Spiritual Communion in the Home as you do so.

Pray: As we celebrate the holiest time of the year quarantined in our homes, set extra time aside for prayer. Pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day. Read the Scriptures. Pray especially for the Church to emerge stronger from this time of trial, pray for clergy who are shepherding us through this crisis, for the faithful longing for the sacraments, for the elect and candidates who have been preparing to join the Church at Easter but who will have to wait until a future time.

Making Each Day Special: Unfortunately most of the liturgies that will be livestreamed will not be showing some of the special aspects of the Holy Week liturgies. So perhaps we can recreate some of these special liturgical elements in our homes as best we can. Below are some suggestions for how we can do so, as well as some other ways we can enter into the spirit of Holy Week. Please remember that these suggestion are not meant to be in place of watching the livestreamed liturgies and making a Spiritual Communion, but in addition to them.

Palm Sunday: Place a branch over your door or somewhere prominent on the front of your house. If you don't have palm branches at home, use any branch you can find. Since you can't participate in a procession with palm branches, read the first Gospel of Palm Sunday out loud, then have a small procession with branches of any kind inside your home, while listening to Hosanna songs from YouTube (see suggestions below).

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week: If you are able to make a grocery run on one of these days, use it to pick up food and drink for your Easter celebration too. If you don't have any Easter decorations, you could most likely pick some up during the grocery run. Or you could use the first days of holy week to make Easter decorations to be displayed on Easter Sunday. Especially if you have kids, quarantine can be a good opportunity for crafts.

The beginning of Holy Week is also a great time to dye Easter eggs. Easter eggs may seem like a secular accretion, but they have Catholic roots. The early Church saw hardboiled eggs as a symbol of the Resurrection, in that the egg coming out of the shell can metaphorically point toward Christ coming out of the tomb. The custom of dying Easter eggs goes back to the Middle Ages, when our Catholic forebearers maintained an extremely strict diet, in which they gave up all animal products, including eggs. For most of Lent, they didn't process the eggs their chickens laid, but as they got closer to Easter, they could hard boil the eggs and set them aside for eating after the Lenten fast was over. During this time of anticipation, they started decorating the eggs, eventually giving rise of a whole new artform.

Holy Thursday: Since the foot washing ceremony is likely to be omitted from the livestreamed liturgies, we can do our own foot washing at home. Married couples could wash each other's feet. Parents could wash their children's feet and vice versa. Not everyone feels comfortable washing someone else's feet, and that is fine. Only those who want to should take part. Also, this foot washing doesn't have to be with soap and abundant water. It can be done symbolically, like at church, by pouring a little bit of water and then toweling it off.

Holy Thursday Mass is also traditionally followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Though the Holy Thursday Adoration will not be available, many churches may still be open for private prayer. If possible, try to make it to a Catholic Church for private prayer in front of the Tabernacle (while observing the social distancing requirements of the area where you live). If you cannot go to a church, look for livestreamed Adoration on the Internet, which is available on various websites (see some suggestions below). Alternatively, spend some time in quiet meditation uniting yourself with our Lord in the Eucharist. Pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary by yourself or with your family.

Good Friday: Since we cannot participate in the Adoration of the Holy Cross at church, we can do so in our home. Create a beautiful prayer table in your home, and place the most prominent crucifix you have in the middle. Pray the Stations of the Cross, and then take turns making acts of reverence toward the crucifix.

Holy Saturday: We will not be able to experience the Easter fire and praying in a sea of lit tapers at church this year. But we can try to approximate the experience at home. Gather all the candles you have, whether real or electrical, and spread them out in your living-room in places where you can safely light them. Prepare a home altar in this room. A table, a stand, the top of a dresser, or some other suitable surface works well. Use a nice tablecloth and incorporate some or all of the following: Your Bible, a crucifix, a rosary, sacred pictures and statues, holy water, blessed salt, candles, incense burner, flowers or potted plants, and other appropriate natural objects that can serve as decoration.

Pick one candle that could serve as your Easter candle. If you have a safe place for a fire (in your yard or in your fireplace) light a fire and gather around it. Say some prayers, either from the text of the Mass, or some other prayers, like the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Light your Easter candle from this fire. Then move to your living-room (make sure any outdoor fires are safely extinguished first), and light all the candles you have placed there. Turn off any other lights. Listen to a recording of the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation, from YouTube (see some suggestions below).

Easter Sunday: Put out all your Easter decorations. Display the Easter Eggs you dyed too. Make a festive meal and bring out your best china. Dress in your finest clothes, as if you were going to Easter Mass. During the day listen to alleluia songs (see some suggestions below).

Easter Week: The week of Easter, known in the Church as the Octave of Easter, has traditionally been a time of ongoing celebration. Unfortunately, secular culture has crowded out the sense of the sacred from Easter week. But being in quarantine is a great time to reclaim the holiness of this season. During Easter week, continue to livestream Mass each day. Continue to set aside extra time for prayer, especially the Rosary. Keep using your best china and make your meals as festive as possible.

In fact, the Easter Season continues for seven weeks. Please see my article Seven Weeks of Easter: Suggestions for a Catholic Celebration of Eastertide for how you can continue the festivities until Pentecost.

Post Pictures on Social Media: Take pictures of your celebrations, your decorations, your festive meals, and of your family in your Easter best and post the pictures on social media. Let the world know that you are still celebrating, despite everything. If your parish has social media accounts, try tagging them. You could also ask the people maintaining the parish social media profiles to post pictures sent in by parishioners of their celebrations or to create a hashtag to use for tagging.

Support Your Parish Financially: You might say that this particular suggestion is self-serving because I work for a parish. But the reality is that many churches rely heavily on the Easter donations to meet their financial obligations. During this time of quarantine, many parishes are doing all they can to reach out to their parishioners through digital media, such as livestreamed Masses and Zoom meetings. Priests are also making themselves available for Confession and anointing of the sick to the extent they are allowed by the local quarantine laws in effect. Consider donating to your parish electronically or by mailing in your Easter donation. Consider continuing regular donations, since your parish still has bills to pay.

As this unprecedented time of Easter unfolds, let us pray for one another, and let us entrust ourselves to our Holy Mother, the Queen of Peace.


The following article and podcast served as the inspiration for this post:

A beautiful idea for Palm Sunday

How to Do Digital Easter by Divine Renovation


Some Hosanna Music from YouTube (there is much more!):

Hosanna in the Highest

Sing Hosanna - Give Me Oil In My Lamp

Hosanna - A Palm Sunday Song

Online Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration

The Exultet in Latin

The Exultet in English

Alleluia Music from YouTube (there is much more!):

Sing Hallelujah

Händel Messiah - Hallelujah Chorus

Alleluia - Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Photo Credit: Christ the Redeemer Statue in Brazil lit up with the flags of the nations as a part of prayers for deliverance from the coronavirus. Photographer unknown. Images such as this are circulating on the Interent.