JERUSALEM – On the day set aside to mark Christ’s crucifixion, most churches stood empty. Streets normally filled with emotional processions were silent. St. Peter's Square was almost deserted. And many religious sites in the Holy Land were closed.
Instead, Christians around the world commemorated Good Friday behind closed doors, seeking solace in online services and trying to uphold centuries-old traditions in a world locked down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the chanting of a small group of clerics echoed faintly through the heavy wooden doors, as a few people kneeled outside to pray. In St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis presided over a candle-lit procession, with nurses and doctors among those holding a torch.
The Jerusalem church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, is usually packed with pilgrims and tourists. But on Friday, four 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 souvenir shops, cafes and hostels, nearly all of which are closed.
In any other year, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Week leading up to Easter. But flights are grounded and most travel canceled 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 Sepulcher 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 he felt what we feel right now,” he said. “But thanks be to God. ... He rose from the dead and changed the world on Easter.”
In Rome, the torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum is normally a highlight of Holy Week, drawing large crowds of pilgrims, tourists and locals. It’s been scrapped this year, along with all other public gatherings in Italy, which is battling one of the world's worst outbreaks.
In the United States, the Good Friday fast typically observed by Catholics was taken up by some in other denominations as a means to connect more deeply with their faith during difficult times.
“The savior himself declared that certain things go not out but by prayer and fasting,” said Russell Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he called for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer to help bring relief from the pandemic.
Members of the Utah-based faith widely known as the Mormon church normally fast one day a month in a practice they believe prepares people to receive God’s blessings. They do it more often in times of crisis.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held a national prayer that was streamed online.
“God gave his own son for us, so we know that he will deliver us from this evil of the coronavirus,” Gomez said.
The new virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy. It can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the old and infirm.
In Italy, where the virus has killed more than 18,000 people, the pope led a Good Friday ceremony where health care workers in white coats provided a stark reminder of how the virus outbreak has infused almost all walks of life.
Just a few dozen volunteer actors witnessed Latin America’s most famous re-enactment of the crucifixion Friday in Mexico City, capping a spectacle that in recent years had drawn about 2 million spectators.
The detailed performance has played out in the borough of Iztapalapa since 1843, but was closed to the public for the first time in 177 years because of the virus. It was transmitted live so people could watch at home. It was first performed in 1843 after a cholera outbreak threatened the then-rural hamlet.
The coronavirus has killed more than 100,000 worldwide, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
In Paris, a ceremony closed to the public was held in the charred and gutted interior of Notre Dame Cathedral, which was nearly destroyed by fire a year ago.
Archbishop Michel Aupetit and three other clergymen wore hard hats as they entered the damaged cathedral. Standing before a large cross and beneath a gaping hole in the roof, they sang, prayed and venerated a crown of thorns that survived the flames.
The bishop said the ceremony, which was broadcast live, showed that “life is still here,” even as the pandemic is “spreading death and paralyzing us.”
One American archbishop, Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, took to the skies in a gesture of devotion.
Aymond, who himself has recovered from the coronavirus, flew over the city in a World War II-era biplane and took with him holy water from the Jordan River where Christ was baptized to sprinkle over the city, and the Eucharist, to bless those the afflicted by the virus as well as first responders.
In the Philippines, where churchgoers were told to stay home, Josille Sabsal treated the moment as a test of faith. The 30-year-old Catholic missionary 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.
“I miss that moment in church when you say, 'Peace be with you,’ to complete strangers and they smile back," she said.
Schor reported from New York. Associated Press writers Frances D'Emilio in Rome; Sergio Rodrigo in Aguilar de la Frontera, Spain; John Leicester in Paris; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; Darlene Superville in Washington; Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee; and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.