Mass via Zoom: VCU students miss out on celebrating April’s religious holidays together

Rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Anthony Marques, livestreams the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Richmond

Sanjana Ravulapalli, Contributing Writer

This year on Easter Sunday, parents didn’t get to watch their children race for pastel eggs at church, extended families weren’t able to celebrate Passover together, and the sense of community Ramadan provides won’t be the same for many this month. 

Despite this, VCU student organizations are using virtual methods to maintain a sense of community during those religious holidays this month.

Sophomore Emma Ostenfeld participated in a virtual Seder on Wednesday, which was the start of Passover, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of enslaved Israelites from the Egyptians. The holiday typically lasts eight days, and a Seder is a celebratory feast thrown to mark the first day of Passover.

“It’s sort of an opportunity for my family, and a lot of Jewish families, to have a big meal with family members with a lot of traditional dishes, and we have a packet that we go through which has prayers and songs,” Ostenfeld said. “We normally celebrate with my entire family, about 20 people.” 

That was not possible this year, despite all of Ostenfeld’s family being in the Northern Virginia area. The family opted to throw a virtual Seder through Zoom. She said it wasn’t the same as usual, but “the attempt is what matters.”

“I thought it would go terribly and be really chaotic, but it was actually pretty nice,” the psychology major said. “Even though we couldn’t do an in-person meeting it was still nice to see everyone over Zoom.”

VCU’s Catholic Campus Ministry found a way to celebrate Easter in a virtual way.

The student organization is affiliated with the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and engages in social and religious activities for students.

The organization typically spends Good Friday together — since most students go home for Easter Sunday — and attends the Stations of the Cross at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

The Stations of the Cross consist of 14 stations, each detailing the journey of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion, with a prayer said at each station. Online classes and stay-at-home orders across the state made in-person celebration impossible for the group — but senior Colleen Connolly, president of the ministry, had an idea.

“I asked our parish priest to record himself doing the stations of the cross, specifically for CCM, and maybe giving a small homily at the end,” the graphic design major said. “I know people are going to celebrate their own way. But I still wanted us to have the stations together.”

Rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Anthony Marques, livestreams the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Usually, VCU’s Catholic Campus Ministry would spend this holiday together before students return home for Easter Sunday. Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Richmond

The ministry has a student house across from the cathedral on Laurel Street, and Connolly says not having access to that space is “one of the biggest losses.”

“Another big loss to the group is just [not] having everyone on campus and just hanging out at our student house throughout the week,” Connolly said.

Members continue to keep in touch virtually during the stay-at-home order, but despite the efforts to connect, Connolly said she misses physically attending mass and interacting with the community.

“Going to mass is such an integral part of my faith and spending that one hour with the community and being able to sit with everyone, to a degree is much more important than just hearing my priest speak over the computer,” Connolly said. “At a mass, there is kneeling, lighting candles and incense and going through the motions that have been the same for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

For the Muslim Students Association, COVID-19 has disrupted their plans for Ramadan, which is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This year, it starts on April 23. 

During Ramadan, Muslims dedicate themselves to prayer, self-reflection and fasting from dawn to dusk. The observance of Ramadan is said to bring people closer to God. It is also believed that during this month, the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

Alum Bilal Quraishi, who serves as the VCU Muslim chaplain for the association, said group meals and experiences with peers would be missed, particularly Iftar. 

“We had been planning on having Iftar, which is where we break the fast after sunset, together,” Quraishi said. “That was probably one of the biggest things we’re missing out on.”

Quraishi said being able to observe Ramadan with peers and people your own age offers a unique experience and sense of community that most people don’t have at home.

“It’s a whole month where we all get together, and everyone’s just trying to increase their religious practices through praying more and just basically trying to get together as a community,” Quraishi said.

During the school year, the Muslim Students Association gives advice to students from a religious standpoint. Quraishi works with a local mosque, The Islamic Center of Virginia, which is affiliated with the association. As a chaplain, he acts as an advisor to members.

The mosque has been hosting virtual Khutbah, a Friday prayer sermon, every week.  They also have been live streaming the five prayers of the day. Quraishi said members are staying in touch through group chats.

“If they’re struggling with their faith, we help with that, along with their normal day-to-day activities, to school, and just social life and everything,” Quraishi said.

While Ramadan will be celebrated differently this year, Quraishi said that quarantine might have a positive effect on religious practices.

“It’s a time where I can concentrate on myself and really try to reconnect with God,” Quraishi said. “It’s a blessing in some ways. We never did Ramadan like this before, try to do what you can to make the best out of it.”

This is a good time for people to look at the true reason why Ramadan is observed, without distractions, he says. And come next year, he hopes people will develop a greater appreciation for Ramadan and the sense of community it brings.

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