Paris’s Notre-Dame celebrates Good Friday with small ceremony, reflecting observances worldwide

A view showing the restoration work at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, which was damaged in a devastating fire almost one year ago, ahead of Easter celebrations to be held under a lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus in France, April 7, 2020.
A view showing the restoration work at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, which was damaged in a devastating fire almost one year ago, ahead of Easter celebrations to be held under a lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus in France, April 7, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS

Although still damaged and scarred by fire, Notre-Dame cathedral came back to life as a centre for prayer in a Paris locked down against the coronavirus.

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Just days before the first anniversary of the April 15, 2019 inferno that ravaged the beloved Paris landmark, the French capital's archbishop led a Good Friday service unlike any other inside the centuries-old jewel of Gothic architecture.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit was to venerate a crown of thorns that survived the flames that brought down the cathedral's roof and spire and horrified Parisians and people across the world.

Prayers, readings and music were to be part of the Friday morning ceremony, but no crowds. With the cathedral closed to the public, only a tiny handful of people took part in the proceedings, which were broadcast live.

The plans for the altered ceremony reflect the ways Christians are commemorating the holy day without the larger church services or emotional processions of past years, marking Good Friday in a world locked down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Faint echoes inside Jerusalem church

The chanting of a small group of clerics inside Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre echoed faintly through the heavy wooden doors, as a few people stopped and kneeled outside to pray. The centuries-old church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, is usually packed with pilgrims and tourists.

Later, three monks in brown robes and blue surgical masks prayed at the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa, the ancient route through the Old City where Jesus is believed to have carried the cross before his execution at the hands of the Romans. It runs past dozens of shops, cafés, restaurants and hostels, nearly all of which are closed.

In ordinary times, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world retrace Jesus's steps in the Holy Week leading up to Easter. But this year, flights are grounded and religious sites in the Holy Land are closed as authorities try to prevent the spread of the virus.

James Joseph, a Christian pilgrim from Detroit dubbed “the Jesus guy” because he wears robes and goes about barefoot, lives near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre year-round. On Friday morning he had the plaza outside to himself. He said Good Friday has special meaning this year.

“The crucifixion is the saddest thing possible, and [Jesus] felt what we feel right now,” he said. “But thanks be to God ... He rose from the dead and changed the world on Easter.”

Ten people in Rome procession

In Rome, the torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum is a highlight of Holy Week, drawing large crowds of pilgrims, tourists and locals. It's been cancelled this year, along with all other public gatherings in Italy, which is battling one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Instead of presiding over the Way of the Cross procession, Pope Francis will lead a Good Friday ceremony in St. Peter’s Square without the public.

Ten people – five from the Vatican’s health office and five from a prison in Padua, in northern Italy, where infections are particularly widespread – will participate in the procession, which will circle several times around the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square.

The coronavirus has killed more than 18,000 people in Italy and over 95,000 worldwide, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.

Masses and rituals on hold in Philippines

In the Philippines, Asia’s bastion of Catholicism, masses and other solemn gatherings have been put on hold, including folk rituals that feature real-life crucifixions and usually draw thousands of tourists and penitents. The annual procession of the “Black Nazarene”, a centuries-old statue of Jesus, through downtown Manila, has also been cancelled.

Churchgoers have been told to stay home and remember Jesus's suffering through family prayers, fasting and by watching masses and religious shows on TV or online.

For 30-year-old Catholic missionary Josille Sabsal, it’s a test of faith. She tried to replicate an altar in her Manila home by setting up a laptop, a crucifix and small statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on a table.

“It’s different, because the priest is on a screen," she said. "When the internet lags, the mass suddenly gets cut off and you have to look for another YouTube video.

“I miss that moment in church when you say, 'Peace be with you,’ to complete strangers and they smile back." 

The Reverend Flavie Villanueva, a former drug addict who ministers in Manila's slums, got special permission to celebrate Mass on Thursday for 73 homeless people in a college basketball court. They wore masks, stayed more than an arm’s length apart and there was no singing.

Villanueva said he's sad to see the churches emptied out, but hoped it would help people to renew their faith: "We are asked to go back and rediscover where the church in our lives first started, and that’s in the family.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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