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In cities across the world, a different Easter, lonelier and live-streamed

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/13/2020 Chico Harlan

Pope Francis reads his “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and the World”) message in St. Peter's Basilica with no public participation due to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease on Easter Sunday at the Vatican, April 12, 2020.

Pope Francis reads his “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and the World”) message in St. Peter's Basilica with no public participation due to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease on Easter Sunday at the Vatican, April 12, 2020.
© Vatican Media/Via Reuters

ROME —It was a day of live-streamed Masses, of empty pews, of interrupted family rituals. Easter services went on, but they looked as they never have before. 

Some Christians around the world attended drive-in services. But for others, it was a day spent at home, praying behind closed doors, following Mass on television or on computers. Governments, stepping up enforcement of coronavirus restrictions over the holiday weekend, pleaded with people to stay away from mass gatherings.

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“For many,” Pope Francis said, “this is an Easter of solitude lived amid the sorrow and hardship that the pandemic is causing.”

Easter in the Vatican was stripped down and somber. Francis spoke in a gaping, mostly vacant St. Peter’s Basilica as church bells clanged across Rome. Gone from the city-state were the usual markers of the day — the banners, the live bands, the tens of thousands of pilgrims, the rows of flowers that make St. Peter’s look almost like a garden.

Francis spoke this year in front of only a few dozen people, delivering an “Urbi et Orbi” — a special papal address — focused on the pandemic. He said the virus has “deprived” people of closeness and changed “millions of lives.” He spoke of the pandemic in geopolitical terms, praying for the end of hostilities and calling for political solidarity, especially in Europe. And, sounding a theme common throughout his papacy, he emphasized the vulnerability of the poor, the homeless, migrants and refugees, and “those living on the peripheries.” 

“Let us ensure that they do not lack basic necessities — all the more difficult to find now that many businesses are closed — such as medicine and especially the possibility of adequate health care,” Francis said. 

Jerusalem

The Easter dawn climbed the ancient stone walls of the Old City on Sunday as it has for two millennia; it was greeted with the iron peal of church bells as it has been for hundreds of years. But in a city that reveres the unchanging return of ritual, almost nothing else was normal on this holiest of Christian holidays.

Where the murmur of prayers and hymns of joy would normally fill the narrow lanes, nothing could be heard but the coo of doves. The sounds of the thousands of pilgrims who normally follow the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ final walk on Earth, was replaced this weekend by the clinking steps of five armed Israeli police officers on patrol.

For some, the unprecedented quiet brought an unexpected blessing: a chance to strip the day to its spiritual core.

“There are less distractions,” said Peter Stavropoulos, a Greek Orthodox priest, only his eyes visible between his black face mask and his black kamilavka head gear. “We are able to concentrate on our prayers.”

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where, by Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, Easter morning is normally a time of mass congregation, with believers from around the globe overflowing the cavernous gloom and filling the sunny plaza outside. 


On this Easter, the plaza was all but empty, the towering wooden doors locked.

Adeeb Joudeh, the latest member of the Muslim family that has held the keys to the church for more than 800 years, said he unlocked the doors just after sunrise, to admit the archbishop of the Latin Patriarchate and two priests, and locked them in. Their unpeopled Mass was live-streamed to the shut-in faithful.

“There has never been a holy day as sad,” Joudeh said.

And yet.

A lone worshiper stood at the closed doors, draped in a cloak, a palm frond in her hand, forehead resting on the wood, praying, or perhaps feeling the vibrations of the organ just audible from the unreachable reverence within. She stood in for the millions seeking solace on this most unsettled of Easters, and her presence alone seemed to fill an empty place with holiness. 

— Steve Hendrix 

Seoul

Scores of policemen and public officials surrounded the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul on Sunday. Angry members of the megachurch accused the police of “offense against religious worship,” and shouted: “We will hold Easter Sunday services.”

The 5,000-strong megachurch led by populist pastor Jun Kwang-hoon faced an assembly ban for violating mask requirements and social distancing rules. But in the end, police stood aside as Easter services were held.

Since coronavirus clusters emerged from churches in the city, the Seoul government has enforced controls on Sunday services and warned of penalties for noncompliance. Last weekend, city officials found some 1,914 churches gathering for worship, of which 18 violated the health rules.

Christianity is the largest religion in South Korea; followers make up nearly 30 percent of the population. There are more than 6,000 churches in the capital city alone.

“Come what may, the Korean church cannot stop the worship, but we turn to video services in face of the infectious disease,” Kim Tae-young, chairman of the United Christian Churches of Korea, said in an Easter message. Thousands of churches were still expected to hold Easter services in person.

Nearly half of South Korea’s 10,512 virus cases are traced to Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is considered a cult by mainstream Christian churches. Church leader Lee Man-hee said all gatherings have been suspended since the outbreak, and has apologized for the church’s role in the national “calamity.” 

— Min Joo Kim

Rome

The Rev. Giulio Dellavite, 48, was one of the lucky few allowed into Bergamo’s cathedral Sunday for Easter Mass. But before setting out, he needed to sign a government form explaining his reason for being on the road. He wore a mask and gloves. Then, after Mass, he planned to return to his residence for lunch with other clerics — “the ones who are still here,” he said.

Perhaps no Catholic diocese in the world has been hit harder by the virus than the one in Bergamo, Italy, where more than 20 priests have died and where Easter has become as much a remembrance as a celebration.

One priest who died had lived in Dellavite’s residence, and three others are still in quarantine. For Easter lunch, the remaining clerics planned to gather in a large dining room.

Slideshow by photo services

“One person at each table,” Dellavite said, “respecting the rules that the government gave us.”

One is 97 years old.

“[He] saw the wars, how history changed in Italy, and he said that this is the first time in his entire life that he cannot celebrate the Mass,” Dellavite said.

The outbreak in Italy has killed more than 19,000 people. One of the priests Dellavite knew well was the Rev. Fausto Resmini, 67, a prison chaplain who helped inmates reintegrate into the community after their release. Resmini died in late March. In normal times, he would have received a large funeral — but those gatherings, too, are banned. 

— Chico Harlan and Claudia Cavaliere

Nairobi

The archbishop of Nyeri looked out on the flock that had gathered in the cavernous hall of downtown Nairobi’s Holy Family Basilica for Easter Mass.

Before him were 13 cameramen, two print journalists, a security guard, a quartet of choir singers and another quartet — four talkative black birds, darting between the nooks of the cathedral’s soaring ceiling, making the only noise to interrupt Anthony Muheria’s echoing sermon.

Muheria made sure to thank God for live-streaming.

“Coronavirus is not a joke,” he told the homebound faithful, watching on television or listening to the radio. “This is a life-and-death affair. If you cannot hug your loved ones to wish a happy Easter, send a text message hug.”

These days, Muheria absolves confessions through WhatsApp. When you call his phone, a ring-back tone plays gospel music. Instead of singing hymns together, Kenyans on Sunday sat in their rooms and sang by themselves.

While the coronavirus hasn’t devastated the African nation, it has prompted stringent and painful containment measures. The day before Easter, the government banned the unauthorized distribution of aid after a stampede for food in a slum killed two.

Muheria used his pulpit to decry the losses.

“Death for us in Kenya is almost a business. We thrive in calamity, but not in life,” he said. “What has hardened the hearts of us Kenyans that we cannot cry for our brothers and our sisters? As Jesus said, you must give half your meal portion to the poor — and not for the camera’s sake, for God’s! Can we learn to love each other again this Easter?” 

— Max Bearak

London

On a normal Easter Sunday, Justin Welby presides at the Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, a soaring, sublime edifice, a thousand-year-old World Heritage site, dating to the 11th century and the Norman Conquest.

On this Sunday, the archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England, led services from the kitchen table in his London flat, via YouTube.

His wife, Caroline, served beside him. You could see the couple’s cupboards and countertops.

The prerecorded video was basic cable, nothing fancy, but heartfelt. Welby fingered a match from a box and lit the Easter candle, a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, and said the ancient words: “Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to him, and all ages.”

The archbishop spoke of suffering and death and light. He prayed for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, soon to be released from hospital, and all others who are ill, and those who cared for the sick and grieved for the dead.

“Even in the dark days of this Easter, we can feed on hope,” Welby said. “We can dream of what our country and our world will look like after the pandemic.”

“Once this epidemic is conquered here and elsewhere, we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all was normal,” he said. “There needs to be a resurrection of our common life, a new normal, something that links to the old, but is different and more beautiful.”

In the chat scrolling alongside the streaming video, participants posted greetings of “Happy Easter!” with smiley-face emoji from all across Britain — and Japan, Australia and the United States. From Suffolk, a viewer wrote: “Thankful for giving peace in this crazy time.” 

— William Booth

Rio de Janeiro

In the favela of Rio das Pedras, in a small one-bedroom home, a mother nursing her 2-month-old son turned on the television. She didn’t know what to expect. This was her first televised Easter.

What Gloria Ribeiro, 40, saw surprised her. The Rev. Marcelo Rossi, one of Brazil’s most popular priests, was administering Mass before hundreds of empty seats. Each chair bore the image of a family who couldn’t come to the service. The broadcast showed only four people in attendance: two priests and two musicians. Their voices echoed through the Mother of God Sanctuary, a massive auditorium in São Paulo.

Brazil is a deeply Christian nation with the largest Catholic population in the world. Most Easter services were canceled out of fear of spreading the coronavirus — and over the objections of President Jair Bolsonaro, a coronavirus skeptic who has criticized the closing of churches. He tried last month to reopen “people’s last refuge” but was blocked by the courts. 

So, on Sunday morning, Brazilians like Ribeiro, who hasn’t left her house in 40 days, were turning on the television.

“I always go to church, but this year, we have to stay at home,” she said. “It is very scary, and there is so much fear.”

Rossi tried to calm those anxieties.

“Are you scared?” he asked. “Are you fearful? Can we have some happiness?”

After the service, Ribeiro said she did feel a bit better. She had been praying things would soon return to normal. She just had to have faith.

“The words of God,” she said. “Everything will be good for our lives.” 

— Terrence McCoy

chico.harlan@washpost.com

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