Palm Sunday on 25 April marks the start of Greek Orthodox Holy Week.
After the success of COVIDSafe Easter celebrations by other Christian groups earlier this month, Greek Orthodox Christians were hoping for a more relaxed Easter setting this year. Most Greek Australians are eager to feel the real spirit of Easter with all the traditions and customs this entails following last year’s muted festivities with televised services due to the global pandemic.
The Victorian Department of Health’s initial guidelines, however, were overly cautious. Further negotiations by the Greek Orthodox church in Victoria helped to hammer out a more reasonable agreement. Fr Evmenios Vasilopoulos, Archdiocesan Vicar of the Northcote, told Neos Kosmos that negotiations with the state government focused “on being able to help achieve the best possible outcome to have the community celebrate Easter 2021”.
Easter will include QR codes and church volunteers will be present to ensure that the 1x2m2 rule is followed, meaning 200 people will be allowed into church facilities of 400 square metres, however there will be “family bubbles” with clusters of people from the same household sitting closer together. Along with the lighting of candles, there will be the squirting of sanitisers and volunteers will sanitise icons after each kiss, according to sources of Neos Kosmos. Like ushers, volunteers will guide people to pews and ensure people enter and exit row by row without loitering.
Outdoor Easter services will take place outside church grounds and on the streets, where the parish may section off areas for the faithful to congregate.
“Say a church is on the corner, it will have access to two streets, each one accommodating 1000 people and with its own entrance point,” he said.
In cases where a parishioner is undecided as to which church to go to, Fr Evmenios advises they choose the larger one.
One thing is certain, Easter will be celebrated by all. “We will try not to let anyone miss out,” he said, denying that there is a regulation requiring people to call up churches to make bookings for Easter services. He does add that Palm Sunday will be a dress rehearsal for what is to come during Holy Week.
Fr Evmenios said he has seen parishioners return to churches. “I take of my hat to the public, especially the older migrants, who are observant and vigilant. They want to come to church, and they are doing all they can to observe regulations and safe practices,” he said, adding that this has been a tall ask bearing in mind the communal element of the church and all its social aspects.
In DHHS guidelines received by Neos Kosmos it is stated “there needs to be no sharing of food, drink, crockery, utensils, vessels or other equipment during ceremonies, this includes for holy communion”, and while Fr Evmenios did not want to comment on this, he advises parishioners who want Holy Communion to call their parish priest so that they can come to an arrangement.
Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos, immunologist and pro-Vice Chancellor of Victoria University, has been studying coroavirus closely as part of her research. “Holy Communion is the remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus whilst on the cross,” she said, recognising its importance. “Now, the question is, is it safe during times of COVID-19? COVID-19 is highly contagious and can have severe consequences and long-term effects. If it can be avoided to catch COVID-19 it is preferred, however in the Christian faith, the belief is that we are protected against catching diseases via Holy Communion.”
Fr Evmenios said that people who share Dr Apostolopoulos’ concerns can be accommodated. “We are trying to offer Holy Communion individually, creating family bubbles,” he said.
In Melbourne, the Good Friday Epitaph procession will be different to what we are used to with parishioners watching the Epitaph pass by the church street as though it were a parade, rather than a procession.
Dr Apostolopoulos said “the epitaph procession is important and this should continue. The meaning will be lost if we just stand there and watch it pass by.”
Lawyer Dean Kalimniou recognises “that the liturgical traditions of Holy Week go to the heart of the empirical experience of being a Greek in Australia”.
He points to the Anzac Day Parade on 25 April where 5,000 veterans will be allowed to March, the numbers of permitted spectators at the Anzac Day AFL match, the Armenian genocide march in the CBD and other activities. “By needlessly or arbitrarily restricting participation in age old traditions, the authorities need to be careful of the message they are sending to the mainstream about ethnic communities such as ours. It would not be beneficial of the implied message is that the religious customs of ethnic communities are subversive, potentially harmful to the mainstream and that our community institutions are spreaders of disease. For this reason we would appreciate caution, discretion and common sense by all government and community stakeholders,” he said.
Dance teacher Dimosthenis Manasis says “there appear to be no other restrictions regarding indoor capacity for shopping centres or sporting events or anything like that,” adding that they are “biased against cultural and faith based groups”.
Fr Evmenios said the regulations are not targeting Greek Australian parishioners. “There were regulations for Ramadan, for Catholic Easter, for everything which requires the usage of public space.”
He adds that COVID-19 has brought many changes to our lives, some permanent. “In the beginning, we started livestreaming for COVID-19 but it is something we may continue to do,” he said.
Bishop Elpidios of Western Australia said that he has not received specific guidelines for Greek Orthodox Easter, however churches in Western Australia were ensuring all government guidelines regarding COVID-19 were adhered to.
In NSW, things are also “almost normal”, according to Fr Steven Scoutas of St Spyridon Church, Kingsford.
“We have had approval from Randwick City Council and the NSW Police who will set up the usual roadblocks to allow for the Epitaph procession and the outdoor Resurrection,” he said. “Excepting something out of the blue, we’re hoping most people will return to Church.”