Pope Francis called for courage and hope as he led a livestream celebration of Palm Sunday in the nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on April 5.
The Vatican has earlier announced that it will set aside centuries-old public celebrations of Holy Week rituals because of the threat of the disease.
In his Palm Sunday homily, Pope Francis called the pandemic a tragedy that must be faced with courage and hope.
“Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: ‘Courage, open your heart to my love,'” said the pontiff.
He said the suffering of Jesus is an assurance that humanity is not alone, and that the current new coronavirus outbreak is an opportunity to love and serve others, as Jesus did.
“When we have our back to the wall, when we find ourselves at a dead end, with no light and no way of escape, when it seems that God himself is not responding, we should remember that we are not alone,” said the pope in his homily.
He said that like many people struggling with fear and uncertainty, Jesus himself experienced “total abandonment in a situation he had never before experienced in order to be one with us in everything.”
“That is the extent to which Jesus served us: he descended into the abyss of our most bitter sufferings, culminating in betrayal,” said Pope Francis.
Call to service
The pontiff reminded the Catholic faithful around the world that “God saved us by serving us.”
“We often think we are the ones who serve God,” he said, adding the God is the one “who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first.”
Noting that Jesus suffered both betrayal and abandonment in his final hours, Pope Francis said Jesus was betrayed not only by the ones who handed him in and denied him, but also “by the religious institution that unjustly condemned him and by the political institution that washed its hands of him.”
He said the suffering of Jesus “was done out of love.”
“We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains,” said the pope.
He said the coronavirus crisis is a summons “to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others.”
Departure from tradition
The Palm Sunday celebration, which kicks off the Holy Week observance that leads to Easter, usually attracts tens of thousands of people at St. Peter’s Square.
The service is usually highlighted by a long procession of cardinals, priests, and the faithful carrying palm fronds.
This time, it was held from a secondary altar behind the main one that Pope Francis normally uses and attended by only about two dozen people, including a few aides, nuns, and a scaled-down choir, all practicing social distancing.
The symbolic procession was only several meters long and a few potted olive trees were brought in.
Next to the altar during Mass were the historic Salus Populi Romani (health of the Roman people) icon, usually housed in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, and the so-called “miraculous crucifix” from the St. Marcellus church on Via del Corso, a typically crowded shopping street.
Traditionally turned to by Romans in times of plague, the sacred items were both used by Pope Francis during a March 27 prayer event and Urbi et Orbi blessing in an empty St. Peter’s Square.
All of the pope’s Holy Week services this year will take place in the empty basilica in a scaled-down version.
The Good Friday “Way of the Cross” procession, which normally takes place around Rome’s Colosseum, will instead be held in the relatively small atrium of the basilica.
Palm Sunday marks the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Easter Sunday on April 12 celebrates his resurrection from the dead.
But many of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics are observing the sacred days this year under home quarantine.
Vatican City itself has been closed to tourists for nearly a month as part of global efforts to stop the spread of a disease that has officially killed more than 65,000 people worldwide.
– with reports from AFP and Reuters.