Coronavirus: Pope Francis delivers Easter mass from empty basilica

The Vatican live-streamed the Easter Sunday service as Catholics celebrate the holiday under lockdown

Christians around the world marked one of their holiest days from home as religious leaders held services behind closed doors and live-streamed sermons because of restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, called for global solidarity to fight the pandemic as he broke with centuries of tradition to deliver Easter Sunday mass behind closed doors. He called for poor nations suffering in the pandemic to have their debts reduced.

"May all nations be put in a position to meet the greatest needs of the moment through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations," he said.

Armed police wearing face masks guarded the entrance to the Vatican City, watching over the empty square where thousands normally gather to hear the pope deliver a message after mass.

Last year, 70,000 turned out to watch the pope speak from a window in the apostolic palace, where he conducts his sermons most Sundays.

Early in March, the 83-year-old Argentine said he felt “caged” as he greeted the faithful online from his library as lockdown measures were imposed.

The pope conducted his mass before a small group of worshippers sitting one per pew to ensure social distancing with the proceedings streamed online. The service, normally one of the most joyful for Christians marking Christ’s resurrection after crucifixion, came at a grim time for Italy, which on Sunday was nearing 20,000 deaths in the country.

Around the world, religions have adapted centuries-old traditions with live-stream sermons and alternative approaches to practising the rituals that underpin different faiths.

The leader of 85-million Anglicans in 165 countries worldwide held his Easter service from the kitchen of his London residence.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wore full robes for the service, which was pre-recorded on his iPad, and he set up a makeshift altar on his kitchen table.

"Welcome to the kitchen of our home on Easter Day," he said. "At this very difficult time in the life of the nation and of the world, our prayers today are especially with those who are suffering, with those who care for them, and for all who mourn."

At Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and entombed, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa urged the faithful to not be discouraged.

“Despite the sign of death and fear that we are seeing everywhere all over the world, we have to look at the good all those that are giving their lives for the others,” he said.

Only a handful of clergy were present and the streets of the Old City surrounding the church were empty of pilgrims.

“The message of Easter is that life, despite all, will prevail," said the archbishop, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

In Lebanon, home to the largest percentage of Christians in the Arab world, Cardinal Bechara Rai urged the faithful to abide by lockdown measures, which have been imposed as Lebanon endures its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.

“We are praying so that Lebanese officials work together in the spirit of collaboration to revive Lebanon economically, financially and socially,” he said in an almost empty church in Bkerki, northeast of Beirut, the seat of the Maronite Church he heads.

The church would normally be packed with people marking Easter, including the president, prime minister and parliament speaker.

For Orthodox Christians, this Sunday marked the start of Holy Week, with Palm Sunday services held in similarly barren churches.

Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians, celebrated in a largely empty Monastery of Saint Pishoy, in a desert valley west of the capital of Cairo. The church made the prayers available on its official Facebook page.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, one the world's oldest Christian communities, had decided earlier this month to suspend Easter prayers and celebrations at churches and monasteries to contain the spread of the virus.

The closure of mosques and holy sites across the Middle East has seen imams across the region move Friday sermons online but many Muslims are questioning how Ramadan will be impacted when the holy month begins later this month.

Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to delay the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medinah this July amid uncertainty over the duration of the pandemic.

EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS