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Pope marks ‘Easter of solitude’ in virus lockdown

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis prayed 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 the expansive marble floor of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The pandemic raging outside the Vatican’s locked gates has killed more than 110,000 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 transformed 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.
“This disease has not only deprived us of human closeness, but also of the possibility of receiving in person the consolation that flows from the sacraments.”
A few priests also gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City — under lockdown 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’s holiest day.
Bells rang across a still and completely silent Rome when mass began.
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 global powers to ease crippling economic sanctions imposed against their adversaries — a possible reference to those weighing on pandemic-hit Iran.
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.”
The official toll across Europe breached 75,000 moments before Francis spoke.
But it rose by just 431 on Sunday in Italy — an encouraging sign that the continent’s worst-hit nation had survived the worst despite registering 19,899 deaths.
The Argentine-born pontiff offered a special message of consolation to those “who mourn the loss of their loved ones (but) to whom, in some cases, they were unable even to bid a final farewell”.
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 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.
Catholics in Spain blasted religious music from their balconies during Holy Week.
Easter Sunday itself saw some faithful leave wreaths of flowers outside the locked doors of churches from where festive processions had departed in previous years in the southwestern Spanish city of Seville.
Three celebrated Italian musicians livestreamed a special Easter performance of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” from a church in the country’s COVID-19 epicentre near the devastated city of Bergamo.
Roman native Rosa Mastrocinque told AFP that her family joined with two others for a joint prayer by a videoconferencing app.
“My husband works from home, my office if closed and school is closed,” the 53-year-old said.
“My spirituality has increased as a result.”
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 at 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 south 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.
And in Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — the spiritual leader of Anglicans — celebrated Mass with thousands of followers on a video recorded from his kitchen.
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.
He has only been seen by small groups of priests and other visitors to his Vatican residence in the past month.

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