At the somber Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on April 2, Cardinal Wilton Gregory focused on the idea that Jesus experienced the ultimate “death with dignity,” saying “Good Friday is the Christian memorial of a death that was filled to the brim with dignity.”

The words “death” and “dignity” “have been joined to make a powerful statement that provokes very strong opinions and reactions,” the cardinal said. Everyone wants to die with dignity, he continued in his homily, “it is a very human aspiration to want to face one’s own death in safety, tranquility and peace. All of us would like to face death surrounded by our friends and loved ones.” And there is nothing contradictory to the Catholic faith in seeking a dignified death, he added.

Cardinal Gregory carries a cross toward the altar of St. Matthew's Cathedral at a solemn Good Friday liturgy on April 2. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Elsewhere in the archdiocese, re-enactments of the Way of the Cross and Good Friday liturgies took place with adaptations for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At St. Augustine Church, for instance, participants over Zoom from locations around Washington linked the 14 stations that memorialize Jesus’s last hours to contemporary social justice issues. The event was shown over YouTube, as was the service at the cathedral.

Most parishes offered a combination of limited in-person and online Stations of the Cross, readings of the Passion and solemn liturgies. Canceled for a second Good Friday were traditional observances such as Via Crucis processions through the streets in Washington and Maryland, some of which normally draw thousands of participants. 

The afternoon liturgy at the cathedral was preceded by music, silent contemplation and a reflection on the Seven Last Words of Christ given by Mercy Sister Cynthia Serjak. She said the starkness of the most somber day in the church’s year takes one’s breath away. 

“How could someone suffering so intensely reach out through his suffering to those who are causing the suffering?” she asked. Yet, “he took the time to say, ‘your sins are forgiven.’”

In his homily a short time later, Cardinal Gregory said that the dignity of Jesus’s death came from allowing God’s will to be done.

“Jesus’ death certainly is not glamorous,” he said. “Jesus’ death clearly was not easy. Jesus’ death was not attractive. Jesus’ death, however, was dignified in the very highest sense of that word. Jesus’ death is imbued with dignity because it was completely at God’s disposal. That ultimately is the only way that any human death can achieve genuine dignity. Its dignity is found in allowing God’s will to be done in our lives – even in those closing final moments of our lives.”

People pray during the April 2 Good Friday liturgy at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The cardinal noted that society spends huge amounts of money on medical treatments to relieve any form of suffering, from mild headaches to intense post-operative discomfort. And while science makes it possible to avoid physical pain and anguish, he said the kind of suffering related in St. John’s Gospel account of the Passion “cannot be sedated. It can only be accepted and then transformed. Jesus’ death is dignified because it is an act of faith in God’s love and mercy.”

But the phrase “death with dignity” also has taken on broad meanings, some of which conflict with Catholic teaching, such as the assisted suicide efforts promoted by the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian and now permitted in a handful of states and some countries. “Death under any of those circumstances is as far removed from any human dignity as much as a person might imagine,” the cardinal said.

“Those who suggest that we can have death with dignity by denying God’s love and mercy have only succeeded in hopelessly separating the two words that they so desperately seek to unite,” Cardinal Gregory continued. Good Friday is a time to reflect on the “the preeminent death with dignity for all time. It is the death of Christ that ultimately gives dignity and meaning to all of our lives and deaths. Good Friday is a moment when we can all consider how our own eventual passage to the Father might be done in the pattern and with the dignity that Christ Himself has given to that transforming moment of life. It is the feast that celebrates how death can be perfectly wedded to dignity in a most glorious union of faith and hope.”

Among the adaptations for health safety at the cathedral, everyone was required to wear a mask, seating was well-distanced and the choir was comprised of just a handful of singers, clad in red choir robes and singing while wearing masks. 

Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, the rector of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, holds aloft a cross as people come forward to venerate it during the April 2 Good Friday Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The veneration of the cross was reworked without the physical touching or kissing of the tradition. Those who wished to participate approached a crucifix stationed at the bottom of the steps leading to the altar and, from a distance, bowed or genuflected. More than 1,000 viewers on YouTube watched the livestream. Comments were posted by viewers from several other countries and U.S. states.