It doesn’t take long to feel the presence of God here.
The candles. The rising smoke and the sharp breath of incense. The bruise through the glass oculus above the altar of St. James Cathedral, the base of which is surrounded with words – Jesus’ words – that got Catholics through the pandemic, and much more:
“I am in your midst as one who serves.”
“In the midst of you” (from Luke 22:27) took on a new meaning during the pandemic when many parishioners could not sit in the house of God. They could only believe that he was there.
So Holy Week seems to have a special meaning. Like Jesus, people have suffered and arise from something.
And they want to do it in church.
“I can pray anywhere,” said Rimas Jonikas on the way out of the Maundy Thursday service in St. James Cathedral. “On an airplane, in the basement. But that feels amazingly good. I feel alive Back to life.”
Before the pandemic, Holy Week services drew 6,500 believers to St. James: A thousand for Maundy Thursday as parishioners celebrated the deeds and words of the Last Supper; 1,500 for Good Friday, when Catholics remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ; and up to 1,800 at each of the two Easter Sunday services to celebrate his resurrection from the dead.
That year, in accordance with Governor Inslee’s restrictions on large gatherings, the Church allowed only 200 people to attend services – a number equivalent to 10% of the cathedral’s total capacity of 2,000, according to Maria Laughlin, assistant to the Rev. Michael Ryan, the cathedral’s longtime pastor.
People had to register online for seats at every fair. The seats for Easter Sunday were “in minutes,” said Laughlin.
Rimas Jonikas’ wife Ausra waited at the computer on the morning of the registration opening at 8 a.m. and hoped to secure seats for herself and her husband at every Holy Week service.
“I feel like we won the lottery,” said Ausra as they left the sacrament mass on Thursday. They would be back for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
“Easter is the greatest for Catholics,” said Rimas Jonikas. “Jesus gives us hope at this time. Of course, Jesus always gives us hope. But you don’t feel alone in church.
“Sometimes it’s the only comfort you can get.”
Ausra Jonikas spoke of the beauty of the ritual, the soothing sound of the choir that seemed to lift their prayers to heaven.
“It’s a lot,” said Rimas. “I’m the guy I need to be in the house of God.”
On Easter Sunday, “everyone wants to be here,” said Ryan.
“People are sure to have cabin fever, and here’s a great way to get out of your cabin and experience a new type of fever.”
Ryan missed it too. As a self-described “person”, he receives a lot of energy when he is with people. And although he does five or six services in a weekend, “I miss it a lot when people are not around. And I know it makes me feel diminished. “
The celebration of the public mass was suspended on March 11th last year. Four days later, the church began live streaming services on Vimeo and on its Facebook page. It wasn’t until May 31 that another public mass took place, during which services for a small group of people were held outside in a courtyard.
“The wind tunnel”, Don Verfurth called him and remembered these services.
Nevertheless, the former acolyte and theology professor at Gonzaga University, 66, was happy to be with his parishioners on the church grounds after months.
“It was like coming home,” he said, “to get back to your routine. It was difficult to be able to come to church and worship with other people.
“And it was definitely something that I missed.”
Mark Villanueva-Contratto attended Maundy Thursday service with his three sons: JJ, 28; Diego, 18; and Miguel, 14.
“We have to be here,” he said. “The connection with people we know as part of what is going on at the altar. It is such a joyful time for us. Holy Week is about getting together. “
Last year he was “calmed down by faith”.
“We might see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “See yourself as the guardians of our brothers and sisters so that we can all be better off.”
Shirley Adler, 81, and a former nun, remembered returning to Mass in May. She had not failed to attend Mass for weeks in her life. Even though they were gathered in the courtyard, it made sense.
“It felt wonderful,” she said. “I’ve been in the Church for 81 years. I never went away. Even though I was tried. “
She understands the beauty of Easter services, the splendor, the ritual. The people who make sure you are there that day even if you don’t see them on another Sunday.
“I focus on how Jesus is really present in holy communion,” she said. “The rest are just flowers.”
After a year of a pandemic that tested people in so many ways, is the Church more important now?
Ryan, a man who loves words, had none for a moment.
“Yeah, some really missed it,” he said. “And being able to be back, you see the meaning in a new way and you articulate that. They tell me that being in church is more important or, ‘I understand now, I will no longer take it for granted.’ “
He knows that there will be “something to be done” to get people who have become familiar with online services to return to the physical church.
“There’s that too,” said Ryan. “And we’re not going to beat people up, but send out greetings.”
Whether they come back on Easter Sunday or another Sunday, they are sure to feel something they haven’t felt in a long time, Ryan said.
“People who come back for the first time are deeply touched,” he said. “I had tears in my eyes that first weekend. It is a feeling of being back home. The warmth and energy can be felt. “
The presence of God and something more.