It doesn’t take long to feel the presence of God here.
The candles. The billowing smoke and sharp whiff of incense. The patch of blue through the glass oculus over the altar of St. James Cathedral, its base ringed with words — Jesus’ words — that have gotten Catholics through the pandemic, and so much more:
“I am in your midst as one who serves.”
“In your midst” (from Luke 22:27) took on new meaning during the pandemic, when many parishioners couldn’t sit in the house of God; all they could do is believe He was there.
So Holy Week seems to have special meaning. Like Jesus, people have suffered, and are rising out of something.
And they want to do it in church.
“I can pray anywhere,” Rimas Jonikas said on his way out of Holy Thursday services at St. James Cathedral. “In a plane, in the basement. But this feels amazingly good. I feel alive. Back to life.”
Before the pandemic, Holy Week services drew 6,500 worshippers to St. James: A thousand for Holy Thursday, when parishioners celebrated the actions and words of The Last Supper; 1,500 for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and death; and up to 1,800 at each of two Easter Sunday services, to celebrate his resurrection from the dead.
This year, and in keeping with Gov. Inslee’s restrictions on large gatherings, the church only allowed 200 people to attend services — a number that is 10% of the Cathedral’s total capacity of 2,000 people, according to Maria Laughlin, the assistant to the Rev. Michael Ryan, the longtime pastor of the cathedral.
People had to register online for seats at each Mass. The spaces for Easter Sunday went “in minutes,” Laughlin said.
Rimas Jonikas’ wife, Ausra, waited by the computer at 8 a.m. the morning the registration opened, hoping to secure seats for herself and her husband at each of the Holy Week services.
“I feel like we won the lottery,” Ausra said as they walked out of Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper. They would be back for Good Friday and Easter Sunday services.
“Easter, for the Catholics, is the biggest one,” Rimas Jonikas said. “Jesus gives us hope at this time. Of course, Jesus always gives us hope. But in church, you feel not alone.
“Sometimes it’s the only comfort you can get.”
Ausra Jonikas spoke of the beauty of the ritual, the soothing sound of the choir, which seemed to loft their prayers toward heaven.
“It’s a lot,” Rimas said. “I’m the kind of guy, I need to be inside the house of God.”
On Easter Sunday, “Everybody wants to be here,” said Ryan.
“People have cabin fever, for sure, and here’s a good way to get out of your cabin and experience a new kind of fever.”
Ryan has missed it, too. A self-described “people person,” he gets a lot of energy from being with people. And even though he performs five or six services on a weekend, “when people are not there, I miss it greatly. And I know I feel diminished by it.”
The celebration of public Mass was suspended on March 11 of last year. Four days later, the church started livestreaming services on Vimeo and on its Facebook page. It didn’t host another public Mass until May 31, when it held services for a small group of people outside in a courtyard.
“The wind tunnel,” Don Verfurth called it, remembering those services.
Still, the former altar boy and Gonzaga University theology professor, 66, was happy to be on the church property, among his fellow parishioners after months away.
“It was like coming home,” he said, “getting back to your routine. Being deprived of being able to come into the church and worship with other people was hard.
“And it was definitely something I missed.”
Mark Villanueva-Contratto, attended Holy Thursday services with his three sons: J.J., 28; Diego, 18; and Miguel, 14.
“We have to be here,” he said. “The connection to people that we know, being part of what’s going on at the altar. It’s such a joyful time for us. Holy Week is about coming together.”
In the last year, he said, he has been “reassured by faith.”
“Maybe we’re going to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “Look at each other as our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, so we all do better.”
Shirley Adler, 81, and a former nun, remembered coming back to Mass in May. She hadn’t missed attending Mass for weeks in a row in her life. So even though they were gathered in the courtyard, it was meaningful.
“It felt wonderful,” she said. “I’ve been with the church for 81 years. I never left. Although, I’ve been tempted.”
She understands the beauty of Easter services, the finery, the ritual. The people who make sure to be there on that day, even if you don’t see them any other Sunday.
“What I concentrate is how Jesus is truly present at Holy Communion,” she said. “The rest is just flowers.”
Is church more important now, after a year of a pandemic that tested people in so many ways?
Ryan, a man who loves words, didn’t have any for a moment.
“Yes, some really missed it,” he said. “and being able to be back, they see the importance in a new way, and they articulate that. They tell me that being in church seems more important, or ‘I understand now, I won’t take it for granted anymore.’”
He knows that it will “take some doing” to get people who have become comfortable with online services to come back to the physical church.
“There is that to deal with, as well,” Ryan said. “And we aren’t going to browbeat people, but send out welcoming messages.”
Whether they come back for Easter Sunday, or any other one, 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. “That first weekend, I had tears in my eyes. There is a sense of being home again. The warmth and energy is palpable.”
The presence of God, and something more.