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Thomas Farragher

Announcing Good News amid a pandemic

Cardinal Sean O'Malley
Cardinal Sean O'MalleyJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2017

It is the brightest day on the Christian calendar, a day of rebirth and renewal, a glorious morning of soaring prayer, of hopeful homilies about resurrection and eternal life.

But this Easter dawns like no other.

Death is all around us. Fear is real and close. Hope, much less renewal, eludes belief.

And so the face-masked faithful will not crowd into church pews this morning. They will be scattered across our city — and across the globe — huddled at home, seeking spiritual solace wherever they can find it.

The question presses in: Where is God in all of this?

Many of us struggle to find an answer.

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But the man who is the spiritual leader of 1.8 million Catholics in more than 280 parishes across the Archdiocese of Boston does not.

“I always say that our God is so great and so loving that he can always bring something good out of evil,’’ Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley told me during the saddest Holy Week most of us have ever endured.

“And he does. We just have to trust him. Easter reminds us that death is not the end. Sometimes, we think we have to have justice here and now. And, yet, it’s under the vision of God that we find eternity together.’’

Cardinal O’Malley is no cookie-cutter cleric.

He has not lived his priestly life in comfortable, well-appointed rectories. If there is such a thing in Catholicism as street cred, he’s got it. In spades.

He was in Washington in early April 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “Riots broke out,’’ he recalled. “There were 700 fires. There were tanks surrounding the White House. There were soldiers with bayonets on every street corner.’’

In the mid-1970s, he was the leader of a center for poor Spanish people and slept on the floor of a home he helped save for refugees from poverty and war in Central America.

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He survived the roaring winds of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when it destroyed the US Virgin Islands, where he served then. Schools were destroyed. So were hospitals. He secured radio time and one of the preciously few working telephones, raising millions to rebuild.

“So many of our churches were on the ground,’’ he said. “But we were on our feet.’’

And now, this.

And so for Cardinal O’Malley, now 75 years old, it will be an Easter morning like he could never have imagined. None of us could.

He will celebrate Easter Mass inside an empty Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

A handful of priests will be on hand to assist him. Television cameras to beam his Easter message via Catholic television throughout the morning as well as WLVI-TV beginning at 8 a.m. and WHDH-TV beginning at 11 a.m.

But, otherwise, the cathedral, which can seat 2,000 in its newly restored pews, will be eerily quiet.

There will be no congregants — dressed in their Sunday finest — to fill the church with song. Instead, there will be a scaled-down choir comprising a couple of singers, accompanied by an organist. The petitions contained in those joyful hymns — as familiar to Christians as Easter lilies — will soar nevertheless heavenward.

Instead the heavens will hear from a scattered and frightened faithful — praying in living rooms and kitchens, in bedrooms and breakfast nooks — who wish they could be bathed once again in morning sunlight filtered by stained glass. Who wish they could be together as the organ music rises to the strains of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.’’

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“Jesus Christ is ris’n today, Alleluia! Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!”

I have interviewed Cardinal O’Malley before in his cathedral office, sitting across the table from him as he spoke in the quiet cadence to which Catholics in Boston and across the United States have become accustomed.

This time, we spoke by phone because of, well, you know.

The cardinal assured me that his health is good.

“I am in good health, yes, thank God,’’ he said. “I’m worried about those who are getting sick from the virus. And I’m happy to see that our government and the leadership of the country are taking this seriously and trying to protect people, asking people to stay home and practice social distancing.’’

The cardinal recalled a visit he made to Spain in February for a conference of clergy:

“They asked me to say Mass at a parish. It’s a wonderful — a very vibrant parish with lots of young families. The young pastor there studied at Harvard. I met him when he was living in the states. Fast forward, I was back in Boston for a couple of weeks; the pastor’s mother died and many of the parishioners were infected and he, himself, was in the hospital on ventilator.’’

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Now, he’s out of the hospital, surviving this pandemic that has precious little pity.

So little pity. So many funerals.

But, for now, those funerals will have to wait.

“Once we’re able to resume public Masses, we will have a memorial service for each individual person who has died,’’ the cardinal said.

Like many of us, he prays for a cure. He prays for a flattening curve, a sign that the battle against this scourge is showing signs of success. He knows there is no quick fix. We’re in this for the long haul.

If nothing else, the pandemic has put our lives into perspective, he said.

“The things that we thought were so important? Maybe they’re not so important.’’ He told me. “There are other things that are important. Like life itself. Our loved ones. A sense of mission. A call to service. Sometimes we think material goods and creature comforts are the be-all and the end-all. But, at a time like this, you discover that they’re not really the things that are important.’’

And so that’s what will be on his mind this Easter morning when he stands in a near empty cathedral and he talks about the risen Lord, and about spiritual renewal at a time when we’ve never needed it more.

“Whenever the resurrected Lord meets anyone in the Gospel, he gives them a task,’’ Cardinal O’Malley said. “He sends them off to announce the good news. And we announce that good news by the way that we live our lives. And by the way we love each other. And care for each other. And forgive each other. And help each other.

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“That’s the way that we are saying that Christ lives. And he lives in our hearts. And he’s calling us to be his followers.’’

Last year, at least 6,000 prayed in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Easter.

This year, the faithful pray at home. For health. For hope.

There will be a sign of that on Easter morning.

It will come from the cathedral’s bell tower and from the ringing bells of churches across our city and across our state.

“Today, we hear the Easter bells as a call to solidarity among all the members of our community,’’ the cardinal will say in his Easter homily, “so that in the face of the pandemic, we might respond to witness to the power of the Resurrection. The power of love that is stronger than death."

Simply put, as the cardinal told me: “Death does not have the last word.’’

That’s a seven-word message of hope.

It’s a prayer people of all faiths can embrace on an Easter morning like no other.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.