WASHINGTON—Saying the nation “reverently pauses in supplication to remember and to pray for the many thousands of people who have died from the coronavirus during this past year,” Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory offered the invocation at a pre-inauguration memorial service Jan. 19 to honor and remember the more than 400,000 Americans who have succumbed to COVID-19.
“We turn to the Lord of all to receive these, our sisters and brothers, into eternal peace and to comfort all of those who grieve the loss of a loved one,” Cardinal Gregory said in his invocation at the memorial service, attended by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “Let us, with one heart, commend those who have died from this virus and all of their loved ones to the providential care of the One who is the ultimate source of peace, unity and concord.”
The memorial service — held the day before the presidential inauguration — included prayer, music and a lighting of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool with 400 lights in honor of lives lost in the pandemic.
“To heal we must remember,” President-elect Biden said just prior to the lighting. “It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It is important to do that as a nation. Between sundown and dusk let us shine the lights along the pool to remember all the lives we have lost.”
Cardinal Gregory said the gathering was a time to “pray for those who have died and the families and loved ones that they left behind … not as strangers or disinterested persons, but as fellow citizens who share some limited portion of their grief and sorrow.”
In his invocation, the cardinal said the coronavirus has left Americans with “a sobering awareness that we are all united in the sorrow that we recognize today.”
“Our sorrow unites us to one another as a single people with compassionate hearts,” the cardinal said. “May our prayer strengthen our awareness of our common humanity and our national unity at a time when harmony is a balm that seeks to comfort and strengthen us as a single people facing a common threat that is no respecter of age, race, culture or gender.”
In his prayer, Cardinal Gregory also remembered “the countless families and relatives who had to surrender their loved ones without the comfort and the consolation of a familiar funeral ritual according to their religious traditions or selection” because of quarantining and other strict preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID 19.
“That privation only added to the sadness engendered by the death of a friend, a relative, or a colleague,” he said.
“May our prayer this evening serve as a small expression of our national desire to comfort and strengthen those who have endured the loss of a loved one to this pandemic, and may it be a resounding gesture of gratitude for all those who have cared for the victims of this virus and their loved ones,” Cardinal Gregory prayed.
Along with the Lincoln Memorial, hundreds of towns, cities, tribes, landmarks and communities across the United States were expected to participate in the event. Iconic buildings, including the Empire State Building in New York City and the Space Needle in Seattle, were illuminated. Other locations participating in the memorial included Wilmington, Delaware; Oakland, California; Miami; Atlanta; Chicago; Dearborn, Michigan; Las Vegas; Philadelphia; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Houston; tribal lands throughout the country; and others.
“We gather tonight, a nation in mourning, to pay tribute to lives that were lost,” Harris said. “For many months we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight we grieve and begin healing together. … The American people are united in spirit.”
She added that “my abiding hope, my abiding prayer, is that we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom: to cherish simple moments, to imagine new possibilities and to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another.”
In addition to Cardinal Gregory and the incoming president and vice president, participants at the Lincoln Memorial event included Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams, who sang “Hallelujah”; and Lori Marie Key, a nurse from Michigan who gained national attention when her singing to her patients became an Internet sensation, who sang “Amazing Grace.”
During the memorial, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception tolled its largest bell, the Blessed Virgin Mary Bell, 400 times. A statement from the National Shrine noted that the 3.6-ton bell rang every five seconds for about 20 minutes. Each toll of the bell represented 1,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
Prior to the memorial ceremony, Tony Allen, chief executive officer of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said the event was an opportunity to “pay tribute to those we have lost — and their families — and (to) come together to unite our country, contain this virus, and rebuild our nation.”
The memorial ceremony was held on the eve of Biden’s inauguration and was televised live across the nation and livestreamed on various social media platforms.
As of Jan. 19, nearly 24.2 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 with 400,103 coronavirus-related deaths. In the past two weeks, an average 3,286 Americans have died each day from the virus.
By Richard Szczepanowski, managing editor of The Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.