JERUSALEM – Christians in the Holy Land marked Good Friday without the mass pilgrimages usually seen in the days leading up to Easter because of the coronavirus, and worshippers in many other predominantly Christian countries where the virus is still raging observed their second annual Holy Week with tight restrictions on gatherings.
In Jerusalem, many holy sites were open, thanks to an ambitious Israeli vaccination campaign. It was a stark contrast to last year, when the city was under lockdown. In neighboring Lebanon, Christians observed Good Friday under a lockdown and suffering a severe economic crisis.
In Latin America, penitents from Mexico and Guatemala to Paraguay carried tree branches covered with thorns and large crosses in Passion Plays reenacting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. At the Vatican, Pope Francis presided over a torch-lit Way of the Cross ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, foregoing for a second year the traditional Colosseum procession that draws thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans.
Worshippers in the Philippines and France marked a second annual Holy Week under movement restrictions amid outbreaks fanned by more contagious strains. In the U.S., officials urged Christians to celebrate outdoors, while social distancing, or in virtual ceremonies.
In Jerusalem's Old City, Franciscan friars in brown robes led hundreds of worshippers down the Via Dolorosa, retracing what tradition holds were Jesus’ final steps, while reciting prayers through loudspeakers at the Stations of the Cross. Another group carried a large wooden cross, singing hymns and pausing to offer prayers.
Religious sites were open to limited numbers of faithful. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died and rose from the dead, was open to visitors with masks and social distancing.
Despite one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, air travel to and from Israel is still limited by quarantine and other restrictions, keeping away the foreign pilgrims who usually throng Jerusalem during Holy Week. In past years, tens of thousands of pilgrims would descend on the city's holy sites.
“In regular years we urge people to come out. Last year we told people to stay at home,” said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land. “This year we are somehow silent.”
“We have to pray for those who can’t be here,” said Alejandro Gonzalez, a Mexican living in Israel. “Those of us who can be here have a responsibility to keep them in mind and to go in this Way of the Cross that they are going through as well.”
In Lebanon, Christians observed Good Friday amid a severe economic crisis exacerbated by the massive explosion that demolished parts of the capital last year. Even traditional Easter sweets are a luxury few can afford.
“People are not even talking about the feast,” says Majida Al Asaily, owner of a sweets shop in Beirut. “We haven’t witnessed anything like this year, despite the war and other difficulties that we had faced before.”
At the Vatican, candles flickering in a breeze were placed in a circle around St. Peter's Square's central obelisk and along a path leading to steps outside St. Peter’s Basilica. There, Francis sat under a canopy in the darkness on a warm evening, listening to children reading meditations composed by other children that recounted sorrowful episodes in their lives.
One child wrote of loneliness in the COVID-19 pandemic, not being able to visit grandparents to keep them safe from contagion and missing schoolmates and teachers since schools in Italy have been closed for long stretches due to lockdown. Another wrote about grandpa dying of COVID-19 without family members in a hospital.
At one point, Francis prayed that God would give people his hope so that “we will be able to recognize you even in the darkest moments of our life.”
Anti-pandemic measures have devastated tourism in Italy and largely reduced religious pilgrimages to a trickle. Only a few hundred participants, including prelates, were allowed to attend.
In the U.S., faithful of all denominations were urged to abide by COVID-related capacity restrictions at houses of worship, to observe online services and to take mask-wearing and social distancing precautions at outdoor ceremonies.
The congregation of First Baptist Church in Medford, Wisconsin held graceful, low-key and socially-distanced indoor services that were livestreamed.
George Myers, pastor of student ministries, focused their attention on the final thing Jesus said on the cross: “It is finished.” Those words were not about His death, but about His completion of the work He was sent to do, Myers said.
“So FBC, don’t miss this. This is the moment when Jesus undid the curse of sin and the curse of death,” Myers assured his congregants.
At St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Denver, celebrants wearing face masks staged an elaborate outdoor reenactment of the Stations of the Cross featuring Roman soldiers on horseback and jeering onlookers using fake leather whips on a condemned Jesus Christ carrying a cross. Police officers escorted the entourage through the neighborhood as church workers handed out face masks to those not wearing them in the crowd of onlookers.
In New York, Archbishop Timothy Dolan presided over a Celebration of the Passion of the Lord at St. Patrick’s Cathedral attended by mask-wearing clergy and worshippers. That service, an evening Stations of the Cross ceremony and a reflection on the passion and death of Christ were broadcast on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM and livestreamed on the cathedral’s YouTube channel and website.
“We may be separated by distance, but we are united in Faith,” the archdiocese said in its invitation to Holy Week celebrations.
In France, a nationwide 7 p.m. curfew forced parishes to move Good Friday ceremonies forward in the day, the traditional Catholic night processions drastically scaled back or cancelled. Nineteen departments in France are on localized lockdowns, where parishioners can attend daytime Mass if they sign the government’s “travel certificate.”
Fire-ravaged Notre Dame did not hold a Good Friday Mass this year, but the cathedral’s “Crown of Thorns” was being venerated by the cathedral’s clergy at its new temporary liturgical hub in the nearby church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.
In Spain, there were no traditional processions for a second year in a row. Churches limited the number of worshippers. Many parishes went online with Mass and prayers via video streaming services.
In the Philippines, streets were eerily quiet and religious gatherings were prohibited in the capital, Manila, and four outlying provinces. The government placed the bustling region of more than 25 million people back under lockdown this week as it scrambled to contain an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases.
The Philippines had started to reopen in hopes of breathing life into its suffering economy, but infections surged last month, apparently because of more contagious strains, increased public mobility and complacency.
In Kenya, all churches were ordered to close as part of a ban on large gatherings to contain a worsening outbreak. Joseph Karinga went to his church anyway and prayed outside the shuttered doors, in a garden near a shrine to Mary.
“I will just say my rosary here and go home," he said.
D'Emilio reported from Rome. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Thomas Adamson in Leeds, England, Aritz Parra in Madrid, David Zalubowski in Denver and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines contributed.