By Reuters and Agence France-Presse
VATICAN CITY (Reuters/AFP) – Pope Francis presided at a scaled-down Holy Thursday Mass in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, praising ordinary doctors, nurses, and priests who risk their lives helping coronavirus victims as “the saints next door.”
ints next door.” The Mass, which commemorated Jesus’ Last Supper with his apostles on the night before he died, usually packs the basilica with up to 10,000 people, including cardinals, bishops, and ordinary faithful.
But because of the coronavirus restrictions, it was said from a secondary altar behind the main one Pope Francis normally uses and attended by only two dozen people, including a few aides, nuns, and a scaled-down choir.
They all practiced social distancing — most with a pew to themselves — in Christendom’s largest church. The service was broadcast live to the faithful on television and over the Internet, which has become the new normal for Easter season services.
Even the traditional foot-washing ritual, which commemorates Jesus’ gesture of humility towards his apostles, was eliminated to avoid the possible spread of the virus.
In his improvised homily, Pope Francis praised those, including priests, who, he said, are risking their lives in helping victims of the coronavirus.
“These days, more than 60 (priests) have died here in Italy while taking care of the sick, in hospitals,” he said. “Together with the doctors and nurses they are the saints next door.”
The diplomatic corps would have attended the Mass sitting in the front in full regalia to represent more than 180 countries that have relations with the Vatican.
They instead organized a fund to contribute to a drive by the Italian Bishops Conference to help hospitals in need, according to a statement by the Cypriot and Italian ambassadors.
The Pope’s scaled-down Holy Week events, which began last Sunday and culminate this Sunday on Easter, were being mirrored around the world in churches where services were also being held without public participation in most countries.
His traditional candlelight Good Friday “Via Crucis” (Way of the Cross) procession around Rome’s ancient Colosseum also will not be held for the first time in decades. It will be replaced by a mini-version in the small atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Church doors will be shut and the Vatican sealed off when Pope Francis leads 1.3 billion Catholics in Easter Sunday celebrations held under a worldwide coronavirus lockdown.
Fear and confusion in the face of a disease whose toll has unrelentingly climbed towards 100,000 are reshaping society and transforming the way religion is observed.
Even such hallowed traditions as the Pope’s messages to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square are being replaced by livestreamed prayers that Francis reluctantly records from the seclusion of his private library.
The Vatican has been closed to visitors for a month and the 83-year-old pontiff — beloved for breaking stuffy customs and mingling with the people — has complained of feeling “caged”.
“We have to respond to our confinement with all our creativity,” Francis said in an interview published by several Catholic newspapers this week.
“We can either get depressed and alienated… or we can get creative.”
Stay home even if churches are open
SOFIA -Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov urged compatriots Thursday to pray at home and not visit churches for Easter to stop the spread of COVID-19 after Christian Orthodox leaders refused to close their doors.
“Religious leaders cannot tell people not to go to church but I can. And I urge Bulgarians not to go, so as not to compromise confinement measures,” Borisov told a press conference.
Bulgaria, a predominantly Christian Orthodox country, celebrates Palm Sunday on April 12 and Easter on April 19, and huge crowds traditionally gather in and around churches for vigils and services even if regular churchgoers are much fewer in number.
The church’s governing body —the Holy Synod — has insisted that cathedrals and churches remain open, despite persistent calls to the contrary from medical experts and the government’s coronavirus taskforce.
They want to prevent a potential surge in COVID-19 infections.
Borisov said he would refrain from going to church “to set a personal example.”