Trump wants ‘churches full’ on Easter. That’s not going to happen, N.J. religious leaders say.

Posted Mar 28, 2020

President Donald Trump said earlier this week he would like to see the country start lifting coronavirus restrictions by Easter Sunday, starting with allowing churches to welcome the faithful for services on Christianity’s holiest day of the year.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?” Trump said at a White House event Tuesday. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country … I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”

But with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise and Easter just two weeks away, some New Jersey religious leaders say Trump’s wish isn’t going to happen here.

Several New Jersey churches and dioceses have begun releasing their Holy Week schedules and none include in-person Easter services on April 12. All promise it will be a Holy Week like none every celebrated in New Jersey.

“Everything in our priestly being wants to bring (the faithful) together, but we cannot risk endangering our beloved flock nor ourselves,” the Rev. James F. Checchio, the Bishop of Metuchen, said in a message distributed to Catholics in his diocese.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s lockdown order, all public gatherings, including large church services, are banned until further notice.

Though churches in the Diocese of Metuchen, which covers Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren, will remain open for private prayer, there will be no public Easter Masses, the bishop said. Holy Week celebrations will be broadcast online.

Checchio also granted Catholics in his diocese permission to eat meat on Fridays during Lent, except for Good Friday, in recognition of the sacrifices they are already making during the global pandemic.

In the Archdiocese of Newark, the restrictions are more severe. All Catholic churches will remain locked to the public.

“Sadly, the current crisis which has suspended liturgical services, will now be disrupting Holy Week,” the Archdiocese of Newark, the state’s largest Catholic diocese, said in a lengthy document outlining this year’s rules for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.

“There should be no more than ten persons present when streaming or recording. This number would include the clergy, the ministers (deacons, lectors, cantors, etc.) and the technology people present,” the archdiocese said.

On Palm Sunday, April 5, there will be no distribution of palms fronds, which are traditionally handed out to parishioners to symbolize Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem before his death.

“Palms may be made available for distribution at a later date,” the Archdiocese of Newark said.

New Jersey’s other Catholic diocese — Trenton, Paterson, and Camden — have begun releasing similar Holy Week schedules emphasizing live stream services or at-home celebrations.

The state’s Episcopal churches are also preparing for Easter services celebrated with video broadcasts.

“While we do not know when this crisis will end, it seems certain that it will not end before Holy Week and Easter,” the Rev. Carlye Hughes, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark said in a letter to her congregation.

Other large Christian and non-denominational churches -- including the Epic Church International megachurch in Sayreville and Life Christian Church in West Orange and Paramus -- have long had live-streaming setups and are expected to keep broadcasting with empty churches at least through Easter.

The coronavirus restrictions are also expected to severely impact other religions and modify religious customs. Jews are preparing to observe Passover, one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays, starting April 8. Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting, prayer and community events for Muslims, is scheduled to begin April 23.

The suspension of public services is taking a financial toll on some religious institutions. Without services, many churches and other places of worship are unable to gather weekly collections that help pay religious leaders and keep buildings running.

The loss of Easter services, which often include some of the biggest crowds of the year in Christian churches, is expected to contribute to the financial strain. Some churches have asked parishioners to continue their weekly donations through online portals or by mail.

Other churches have launched emergency fundraising campaigns. The Archdiocese of Newark said it had raised about $137,000 as of Saturday through a GoFundMe page set up to funnel donation to individual Catholic parishes.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, head of the Archdiocese of Newark, said the church is still trying the navigate uncharted waters as it finds new ways to keep the faithful together when they can’t be physically be near each other.

“Thank you for your generosity, and please be assured of my prayers for you and your families as together we weather this storm and prevent the suffering of those most vulnerable among us,” Tobin said in a message to donors.

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