Pope Francis ventured out into the deserted streets of Rome last Sunday and went to pray at two shrines for the end of the coronavirus pandemic which has been specially deadly for Italy, next to China. Europe has become the epicenter of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), after it subsided in China.
The Pope walked along the deserted streets to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then proceeded to St. Marcello Church, to pray before a crucifix that had been used in a procession when a plague hit Rome in 1522.
The Black Death that hit Europe between 1348 and 1350 killed an estimated one-third of Europe’s population at the time. It spread to other parts of the world, including Asia where it killed up to 80 percent of the population of the Chinese province of Hubei. This is the same province whose capital is Wuhan, where the present COVID-19 pandemic began in late 2019.
A second plague hit Europe two centuries later, the first wave hitting in 1520-29, the second in 1533-40, and the third wave in 1552-68. This plague had begun in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, then spread west to Greece and Italy. A Venetian report from that time said the plague was claiming 200 lives a day.
Payers and processions were held in the plague-hit towns and cities of Italy. In Rome, one procession carried a crucifix that has survived to this day – the crucifix before which Pope Francis prayed last Sunday in the St. Marcello Church.
The Vatican said that this year’s Holy Week services next month will be scaled down because of the pandemic. Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, is traditionally celebrated at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican with thousands in the crowd waving palm branches, while the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday takes place around Rome’s ancient Colosseum. These and the Easter Sunday services will have to be held with only small representative groups attending.
We will be facing the same problem when we celebrate Holy Week starting with Palm Sunday on April 5 ending with Easter Sunday on April 12. Metro Manila and the whole of Luzon are now under quarantine, along with many provinces in Visayas and Mindanao. Work has been suspended in many government offices and private enterprises, and all are called upon to observe “social distancing” or avoid physical contact with other people. That quarantine will be in force until April 14.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has cancelled traditional Holy Week activities, such as Visita Iglesia, Siete Palabras, and the traditional kissing of the cross in churches. This will indeed be a different Holy Week celebration for Christians around the world who, like Pope Francis, will have to pray by themselves in this time of trial.