Stirring Sermons About Coronavirus, in Empty Cathedrals

Stirring Sermons About Coronavirus, in Empty Cathedrals

At 11:15 on Sunday morning, the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, priest-in-charge and vicar of Trinity Church Wall Street, will step into the sanctuary of the soaring 1846 Gothic Revival building in Manhattan to deliver a sermon about the need to come together in the face of coronavirus.

But no parishioners will be there.

The scene will repeat at some of the most well-known houses of worship in New York: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York; Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church; and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Something similar already played out in the city’s mosques during Friday prayers and in synagogues at Shabbat services on Saturday.

The coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of religious services across New York and much of the country this weekend, but faith leaders have stepped unto the breach in an effort to comfort and lead communities that are increasingly anxious and unsure about where to turn.

On Sunday, ministers plan to preach messages of calm and compassion to empty churches as their congregants watch on live stream, isolated at home by public health warnings that convinced the Catholic Church and several major Protestant denominations to shut their doors.

“Over that past 125 years, in normal times and in times of uncertainty, the Cathedral has always been here,” the Episcopal Diocese said in a statement. “Now, as we move through Covid-19, is no different.”

“Our doors are open for anyone looking for a quiet place to reflect, meditate or pray and our priests are available for one-on-one meetings for pastoral care,” it added.

There have been more than 600 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York and two deaths, officials said, sending a wave of fear across the region that has upended daily life.

“The government is utterly failing to provide rational, reliable leadership,” said Jeffrey Cahn, executive director of Romemu, a popular Upper West Side synagogue that he said was the first in New York to cancel in-person Shabbat services.

“As religious leaders we have a pulpit,” Mr. Cahn said. “If we can tell 4,000 people, ‘Even though everybody says do X, we are telling you to do Y and do it now,’ then we should do that.”

Mr. Cahn said his synagogue was now advising congregants not to gather in groups in their homes, even to watch Shabbat services online.

On Friday night, Rabbi David Ingber used the live stream service to offer comfort to worshipers.

“One of the beautiful things now is every place can be a synagogue,” the rabbi said. Despite their dislocation, he told the worshipers that the past week should make them “acutely aware of how interwoven we all are.”

“Even though we are not physically close, we are all connected,” he said.

Others have urged their followers to care for those whose lives have been affected by the outbreak.

“Let us pray for all who are sick, as well as doctors, nurses, caregivers and all those working hard to combat the disease,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in a statement on Saturday.

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer who said he had been in voluntary isolation since returning from a pilgrimage to Israel, gave spiritual advice to his 600,000 Facebook followers on Saturday.

Citing the teaching of Jesus and the work of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, he urged his viewers to “resist panic” and not to “demonize or scapegoat” Asian people for a pathogen first detected in Wuhan, China.

“This virus is no one’s fault,” Father Martin said in a video. “We still have the fundamental Christian responsibility to love people and not treat them like dirt. Lots of things have been canceled by the coronavirus, but love is not one of them.”

Some religious leaders have also sought to comfort the members of their own clergy.

In a letter last Wednesday, the Rev. Andrew Dietsche, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told priests and deacons that they “do not have the freedom to indulge in ourselves the common fears of the masses.”

“We are called to a witness of strength, courage and faith and to be a calm, non-anxious presence in times of fear,” he wrote. He added that “maintaining a normalcy about the common life of our church” could “go a long way to reassuring our people and helping them, in the midst of uncertainty, to live in trust, confidence and hope.”

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