VATICAN (AFP) – Pope Francis offered a prayer for coronavirus victims in an unprecedented livestream Easter Sunday message delivered from a hauntingly empty Vatican to a world under lockdown.
The 83-year-old pontiff spoke softly at a solemn ceremony attended by just a handful of priests and a small choir that was spaced out across Saint Paul’s Cathedral’s expansive marble floor.
The pandemic raging outsides the Vatican’s locked gates has killed more than 109,000 people and left billions confined to their homes.
The pope’s message was livestreamed for the first time — a bow to technology in the face of a new illness that has changed the shape of society and altered the way religion is observed.
“For many, this is an Easter of solitude lived amid the sorrow and hardship that the pandemic is causing, from physical suffering to economic difficulties,” he said.
A handful of priests and a few faithful also gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City — locked down like the Vatican — to say prayers at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected on Easter.
The majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics were in forced confinement as the pope spoke and almost all of the world’s churches were shut on Christianity’ holiest day.
– ‘Not a time for division’ –
The pope pleaded with the world’s leaders to put aside their political differences and call back their armies during a global health emergency of a magnitude not seen in 100 years.
“This is not a time for division,” Francis said.
“May Christ enlighten all who have responsibility in conflicts, that they may have the courage to support the appeal for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.”
He said health considerations required world powers to ease crippling economic sanctions imposed against their adversaries — a possible reference to those weighing over pandemic-hit Iran.
“In light of the present circumstances, may international sanctions be relaxed, since these make it difficult for countries on which they have been imposed to provide adequate support to their citizens,” Francis said.
He called for a “reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations” and for European nations to show the same “solidarity” they did in the wake of World War II.
“After the Second World War, this beloved continent was able to rise again,” he said.
“The European Union is presently facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world.”
And he offered a prayer for those killed and those mourning the victims of a disease that spread from China to Europe in February and has now encircled the world.
“Today my thoughts turn in the first place to the many who have been directly affected by the coronavirus: the sick, those who have died and family members who mourn the loss of their loved ones, to whom, in some cases, they were unable even to bid a final farewell,” he said.
– Religious improvisation –
The pope’s virtual Easter Sunday message was the most vivid example of religious improvisation in the age of social distancing and confinement.
The faithful have already followed his advice and found creative solutions.
The archbishop of Panama took to the air and blessed his tiny Central American nation from a helicopter.
The faithful in Spain blasted religious music from their balconies during Holy Week.
Easter Sunday itself saw some faithful leave wreaths of flowers outside of the locked doors of churches from where festive processions had departed in previous years in the southwestern Spanish city of Seville.
A parish near the Philippines’ capital Manila pasted the empty pews with family photos that the faithful had emailed to the priest.
The Orthodox Church in Greece is planning to hold mass behind closed doors for its Easter on April 19.
Jews across the world did their best by using Zoom or other video-conferencing apps to “seder-in-place” when the eight-day Passover holiday started on Wednesday evening.
State television in Lebanon broadcast mass under lockdown from an empty church north of Beirut.
Catholics in neighbouring Syria — where celebrations had continued in Christian quarters of Damascus despite years of agonising war — stayed home this time because of the virus, but many watched a Facebook Live celebration by the country’s patriarch.
Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told a live mass broadcast that the southeast Asian country’s Roman Catholic Church had forgiven suicide bombers behind attacks that killed at least 279 people last Easter.
“We offered love to the enemies who tried to destroy us,” he said.
Westminster Abbey in London is following the trend by releasing Easter podcasts for the faithful of the Anglican Church.
And priests at France’s Roman Catholic shrine in the southwestern town of Lourdes were relaying nine consecutive days of prayers on Sunday by Facebook Live and YouTube.
– ‘Saints next door’ –
The lockdown forced the pope to improvise throughout Holy Week.
In previous years he had observed Holy Thursday service marking Christ’s last supper by washing the feet of 12 inmates on the outskirts of Rome.
The virus made that impossible this year.
Francis instead said a prayer for the dozens of priests and health workers who have died across Italy while attending to the sick.
“They are the saints next door, the priests who gave their lives by serving,” Francis said.
He invited five nurses and doctors to accompany him for the Good Friday processions in order to highlight their profession’s sacrifices over the past month.
Francis himself has reportedly been tested twice for COVID-19 since coming down with a cold at the end of February.