Joe Nick Garza no longer attends Mass in San Fernando Cathedral, the historic heartbeat of Catholicism in San Antonio.

“My wife and I view the Mass in our kitchen on an iPad,” the 79-year-old said.

A member of the parish since 1988 and the recently retired director of the cathedral’s Mariachi Choir, Garza explained: “It’s the only option. Of course, it’s so much more inspiring to be there in the cathedral, hearing the priests’ homilies and listening to the hymns, worshipping with fellow parishioners. But we can’t be there. It’s very unusual, very different to be at home instead of inside the cathedral. But we appreciate the efforts made to transmit the services into our home.”

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, since the cathedral was closed to the public in March, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and Father Victor Valdez, San Fernando’s rector, have streamed Mass via Facebook and YouTube and met with groups of parishioners on Zoom. Services also have been aired on Catholic Television San Antonio.

The clergy have been especially busy during Holy Week, leading up to Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar.

In his Easter message on Sunday, delivered to empty pews and a handful of priests and deacons, García-Siller called on Christians to renew their faith on the day that Christ rose from the tomb 2,000 years ago, according to Scripture.

“The light of the Paschal candle shines brightly, dispelling the darkness, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world,” the archbishop said, his voice echoing in the soaring cathedral, built in the mid-1700s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “No darkness, no evil can overcome it. But what does it mean to us today when we are physically separated by the coronavirus? And when we are able to return to our daily routines, will we carry some of the light of Christ within us? Will we allow it to make a difference in our lives, our thoughts, our attitudes? We cannot wait for the coronavirus to end to go back to normal. We need to be reformed, changed, to be better!”

Quoting Pope Francis, the archbishop said many of us “live ourselves as if we are in a tomb.” He prescribed faith, hope and love.

“At this moment, we may feel powerless, but who will remove the rock? The first stone to be removed is the lack of hope that imprisons us within this trap. Christians without hope? Nothing and no one can separate us from God’s love. This is the message of Easter. Let us allow the word of God to remove the stone from our tomb. Wake up! Christ is your light.”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller takes part in Holy Communion during the virtual Easter service. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

During the 59-minute Mass, which included readings of Scripture (Acts, Colossians, John), the renewal of faith (“Do you renounce Satan?”), the petitions (“Lord, hear our prayers”), and the “sacred mysteries” of Holy Communion (“Take this all of you, for this is the chalice of my blood”), nearly 100 households worshipped on YouTube.

Following Communion, in which no parishioners could partake, a placard displayed onscreen, with a woman praying: “Since I cannot receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.”

García-Siller acknowledged in a telephone conversation earlier in the week that holding services in an empty church was “very strange.”

“It’s a very different experience, very austere,” he said. “I look at it like this: At this moment in history, God has given us the opportunity to deepen our spiritual experience. But true worship takes place within the temple of our bodies.”

He spoke of resiliency.

“In the midst of all this, we must remember that God has not abandoned us,” the archbishop said. “We must have faith. Life is love, and we will need a lot of love to persevere. We will need to be resilient and have purpose.”

Valdez, San Fernando’s rector, urged people to avoid isolation, to use available technology to stay in touch with their churches, friends and family.

“Isolation can cause so much distress,” he said in a Wednesday telephone interview. “We are streaming services, meeting with parishioners in a variety of ways on the internet to let them know that they are not alone, that the light is still there.”

Worshippers from all over the world have streamed San Fernando services, Valdez said, due to the cathedral’s historical significance and beauty – its massive Spanish baroque retablo glows warm and golden in interior long shots of the cathedral, normally the bustling downtown scene of hundreds of baptisms, weddings, funerals, Masses and even pilgrimages every year.

“We are doing whatever we can in utilizing the technology, so thank God we have that,” Valdez said. “People have said, ‘Thank you, Father, for offering this.’ We’ve been getting comments from people in Chicago, London, all over the world. So it’s been good in that sense. But we must remember that good always overcomes evil, that good always comes from evil.”

A video camera captures the Easter service at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Saturday night, during an Easter Vigil Mass, García-Siller baptized a young man named Joel at the baptismal font, dated to 1759 and believed to be the oldest piece of liturgical furniture in the cathedral.

It was a reminder that church business, in all its forms, will go on. The archbishop said individual baptisms and confirmations, with small groups of clergy and family, will continue at churches throughout the archdiocese during the 50 days of Eastertide, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, seven weeks away.

“The pandemic is not under our control, but there are many things in life we do not control,” he said. “We must continue to do all that we can.”

After the Mass, retired mariachi trumpeter Garza seemed galvanized by the archbishop’s message. He was harvesting nopalitos in the yard while his wife Elma prepared an Easter feast – the holy trinity of fajitas, rice and beans – that his three daughters in San Antonio were going to come by and pick up at the Garza residence via “curb service.”

“The thing I got from (the Mass) was that we should not despair,” he said by phone. “We should try to remove the stone, which he was speaking of metaphorically, that keeps us from being productive. We missed taking Communion, which we always do. But I thought the archbishop’s homily was just wonderful.”

Watch the Easter Sunday Mass at San Fernando Cathedral here.

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Steve Bennett

Steve Bennett has written about arts and culture in San Antonio for more than 30 years.