Inside the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop Andriy Rabiy told the story that many Christians have heard before. At first, Jesus entered Jerusalem to a jubilant welcome. Days later, many of the same people who celebrated him would cheer at his crucifixion. Over the course of Holy Week, Rabiy explained from the cathedral to a congregation that was live-streaming, they’d be following the gospel to that fateful day.

“We will hear how everything seems to be getting darker, and darker, and darker,” he said in English at their Sunday bilingual service. “It’s always the darkest before the dawn. And so is the history of salvation."

The bishop was holding pussy willows. This is a long-held tradition in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, where Palm Sunday is also called Flowery Sunday, and pussy willows are used because, historically, it was difficult to get your hands on palms in Eastern Europe.

Although palms may have been tricky to access this year because of coronavirus restrictions, old pussy willows would work just fine, Rabiy told the faithful watching at home.

“We all have our pussy willows,” Rabiy said. “Find them. And hold onto it. Hold it for a moment there. And even say ... as the children of Jerusalem were saying today: ‘Hosanna!’”

Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Borys Gudziak (center) sprinkles holy water on the pussy willows before the altar as Bishop Andriy Rabiy (right) looks on during a live-streaming service to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Borys Gudziak (center) sprinkles holy water on the pussy willows before the altar as Bishop Andriy Rabiy (right) looks on during a live-streaming service to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia.

Many places of worship have converted to closed livestreamed services due to the pandemic. And with this, palm distribution was widely canceled or postponed. Palm Sunday always ushers in the most sacred week on the Christian calendar but this week appears in a way that Christians today haven’t experienced before.

As the region’s Roman Catholics tuned into feeds of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s virtual Mass at 11 a.m., they were greeted with technical glitches such as no sound, triggering considerable frustration.

A feed of the service at Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul that did have sound was Deaf Catholic Philly’s YouTube, where worshipers were later directed to watch.

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia apologizes for audio issues that occurred for users today during the live-stream of the Mass,” spokesperson Ken Gavin said in an email Sunday. Deviating from usual in-house production, the archdiocese Sunday “worked for the first time with a service provider to include real-time closed captioning for the Mass for the benefit of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. During that process there was a technical glitch that affected live audio.”

A replay of the Mass with full audio is now available on all channels, including Archbishop Nelson Pérez’s Facebook page, he said.

While ideas for paper palms floated around the internet ahead of Sunday, Rothe Florists in Mount Airy continued to field orders for real ones that could be arranged for no-contact pickup by appointment. Owner Herb Rothe said palm sales were down by 50% this year; however, the diligent were still calling. Customers had discussed plans for no-contact palm sharing, such as leaving palms churchside for other worshipers to grab on their own.

“Everybody is doing something a little different. … Everybody is trying to do their best,” Rothe said. “The folks who are really trying to make it happen are making it happen.”

Alexandra Sawchyn, a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, joined Facebook so she could stream the cathedral’s liturgies from home. It was only a couple of Sundays ago that she was watching church with her mother, Vera, and sister Roma. But last Sunday, while limiting time outside of her own home and thanks to her sister’s pointers, she pulled up the stream by herself. If this were a normal year, the sisters would have been at the cathedral decorating for Sunday’s festivities. Facebook was confusing, Alexandra Sawchyn said, but if she didn’t have a stream, she thinks she would have done nothing for Palm Sunday.

“It was lovely,” said Alexandra Sawchyn, who kept pussy willows nearby and considers Holy Week streams convenient. On Easter, she figures that she will call her relatives rather than have the meal they’d typically share together. “It’ll be sad, but we’re blessed. We have homes. ... This is the time where we need to do what we need to do.”

Roma Sawchyn, who neighbors her sister in the Fishtown-Kensington area, said that the time spent praying separately hasn’t been all bad. The experience, she said, “in some way, it’s really special.”

“It does something to bring us closer to the spirit of the parish,” she said. “And I don’t know, it’s opened up this whole other opportunity to communicate with each other.”

There are many rituals, Penn religious studies professor Anthea Butler pointed out, that are being carried out online: such as getting a reading from an Ifá priestess, or paying for “cloud tomb-sweeping,” an option that was available in China for Saturday’s Qingming Festival, a holiday dedicated to honoring ancestors.

“If you can’t do the ritual in person, you can’t go to that place, you can’t bow down, whatever. It doesn’t mean that that doesn’t mean the same thing for you,” Butler said. “It just means it’s happening in a different space and you have to decide whether or not that space works for you.”

This isn’t the first plague, Butler pointed out. During the Black Death, ritual had to adjust. Butler measures that celebrating Holy Week during a pandemic should push Christians to think of the holidays differently.

“This is really tough because everybody points to the resurrection as a happy time and everything else, but now you’re going to really have to focus on the death,” Butler said.

“There’s people who are going to have people die this week and they’re not coming back. And I have to hear this for myself, too, right?” she continued. “Do you believe that message [on Easter] or do you don’t believe that message?”

The transition to digital ministry has been tough for Roman Pitula at Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Northern Liberties. The cathedral rector enjoys counseling parishioners in person.

“I could never imagine something like that, that I would tell people ‘Stay at home. Don’t come to church.’ That’s very unusual.”

He zoned in on the matter of not being able to receive Communion. In the Soviet era, the Ukrainian Catholic Church endured brutal repression. After dictator Joseph Stalin dissolved the church, Ukranian Catholics carried on in secret, facing harsh consequences from detainment to exile in Siberia. During this time, Pitula explained, Ukrainian Catholics who couldn’t receive the Eucharist, would receive Communion spiritually. As Communion can’t be received through live-stream, Pitula said, it’s critical to remember to receive spiritual Communion now.

Staff writer Pranshu Verma contributed to this article.