Cathedrals are built to be filled. Their very purpose is to house the seat of the local bishop, and to gather with him great crowds of the faithful for worship and sacrifice. They are built to echo with the sound of many voices raised in prayer, in song, in joy and in lament; they are built to fall silent with the hushed prayer of a congregation bowing unworthily before the Lamb.

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Bishop Jeffrey R. Haines during the ringing of the bells after Easter Mass on Sunday, April 12, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. (Photo by David Bernacchi)

So what should we make of an empty cathedral, especially on the holiest week of the Church’s liturgical calendar? Can a sea of vacant seats ever be anything other than ominous, tragic even?

It can — when those seats are vacant out of obedience to Christ’s greatest commandment: love one another.

As he presided over the liturgies of the Triduum — liturgies with no congregation, and precious few in attendance — Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki reminded those viewing at home that, though the coronavirus pandemic may have left us feeling powerless, afraid or even disenfranchised, we retain the most important power of all — that of being able to show love and care for one another.

Beginning his homily at the Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper on the evening of April 9, he acknowledged that the scene in the cathedral, and the inability to gather for worship, “feels really strange.”

Nevertheless, he beseeched the faithful to “look at what we have.”

“We have the power to love one another and to understand that we do things and we make our manner known so that we can assist one another, we can help one another,” he said. “We can, as Jesus commanded us, love one another. So we are joined together in this Eucharist tonight, whether you are viewing at home or the few that are here in this Cathedral. We are one in God’s love.”

The archbishop further noted that, though St. John in his Gospel is noted for particular attention to the Eucharist, in his depiction of the Last Supper he also puts a spotlight on Christ’s action of washing the feet of his disciples. This underscores how the Eucharist itself is founded “in the ultimate service of Our Lord in His love for us … the Lord who humbles himself as servant in the washing of the feet of his disciples gives us an example that his very gift of the Eucharist … must be placed at the service of others in his name.”

The ritual Washing of the Feet in the April 9 liturgy, however, was noticeably omitted — rather, the representation of Christ’s posture of service was enacted in homes throughout the archdiocese, where those who longed to receive him in the Blessed Sacrament denied themselves for the sake of others.

The following day, the archbishop urged the faithful to look to Christ’s sacrifice for strength in the midst of the pandemic.

“Jesus carried the cross for our sake. The question we must ask today is, can we carry our crosses for him?”

The cross, added the archbishop, is a sign of contradiction. To the world, it represents death and defeat. To the Christian, “it is a sign of victory.”

He observed that the greatest pain of Christ on the cross might not have been from the nails in his hands and feet, but from the abandonment of his disciples.

“Given the secularism of our age, I now add another pain for Jesus — indifferentism. Indifferentism to the pain that Jesus endured for our sake,” he said. “Imagine our society walking, or rather, driving, past Calvary with no time for Jesus, with no sense that his crucifixion is an act of love that is saving us and making us free, paying our debt and restoring our dignity.”

The fact Christ loves us despite this indifference defies logic, said the archbishop. “Especially at this time can we take our fears, our helplessness and our uncertainties and join them to the Cross as a sign of our trust in Jesus?”

After all, he reminded his listeners: “The tomb awaits all of us.”

“But the empty tomb is offered to those who believe,” he said. “You cannot travel to the empty tomb apart from the cross.”

At the Easter Vigil the following evening, he reminded the faithful that the light of Christ brings hope “to a world filled with uncertainties” and urged them to embrace that hope, even as they now embrace their individual crosses. Archbishop Listecki expressed his thanks for “the spiritual sacrifices you are making for the safety of your brothers and sisters.”

“There is no doubt about the difficulty of these moments,” he said. “But believe me when I tell you your actions have made a difference. I encourage you to continue to follow the guidelines established for the members of our community.”

The collective feeling of disorientation and fear now experienced by the faithful, cut off from their churches and from the Eucharist, is an experience that parallels that of the disciples on Easter morning. Their world, he said, was “turned inside out by Jesus’ crucifixion.”

But the message of the angel they found at the tomb, is a message for us today: Be not afraid.

“It’s obvious to me that the message for us at this Easter is: Do not be afraid,” he said. “Can you hear Jesus saying to us, ‘Do not be afraid?’ Do not be afraid, to calm our fears and uncertainties. Do not be afraid. Be bold in proclaiming the living Jesus to our brothers and sisters.

“I’m a believer. So I will tell you why I am so joyful at this vigil of Easter: because Jesus has been raised from the dead. And all who believe in him will live united to our loving God forever.”

The next morning, celebrating Easter Mass, he called the Resurrection “the great surprise given to us by God.”

“Even for his closest disciples, it appeared to be over. All was lost,” he said. “Who could ever imagine the Resurrection event? And yet, the signs were there.”

He urged the faithful to be wary of the “stones” blocking their own way to the tomb — fear, uncertainty, skepticism, indifferentism and personal sin.

“These stones, which block our affirmation of the Resurrection, are often rooted in sin. In our age, there is a type of secularism which rejects all or any dependency on God and looks only to human devices, which denies the transcendence and the spiritual aspect of our nature. It denies the full truth of who we are.”

The full truth of who we are can only be realized and fulfilled in looking to the next world, not to this one. “The Resurrection presents to us the fullness for which we have been created. The rock which created an obstacle for those wishing to enter the tomb will now be transformed into the rock of faith. We have the rock, Peter, affirming the event. The rock, represented by Peter, is the Church proclaiming and preserving the faith entrusted to it.”

He recognized the selfless actions of healthcare workers, first responders and essential workers, and thanked those working in the Church, both clergy and the laity, for “their attention and concern for the well-being of our archdiocese and for our parishioners.” A final time, he thanked the faithful for bearing with the trial of being separated from public Mass, and urged adherence to social distancing guidelines against gatherings of large groups.

“It is through faith and love the Resurrection is best experienced,” he said. “It is faith and love which will guide us through this pandemic.”