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How virus changed Vatican's Holy Week, Easter Sunday celebrations

MANILA, Philippines – In a stark departure from centuries of tradition, there was hardly anybody as Vatican City marked Holy Week and Easter under a coronavirus lockdown.

There was no throng of faithful as Pope Francis led the world's 1.3 billion Catholics the past week. 

Agence France-Presse noted: "Even such hallowed traditions as the Pope's messages to the faithful on Saint Peter's Square have been replaced by prayers that Francis reads into a camera from the seclusion of his private library."

It added: "Fear and confusion in the face of a disease whose official death toll has soared past 100,000 – but whose real one is feared to be higher still – are reshaping society and transforming the way religion is observed."

Here is a timeline of how COVID-19 has affected the Vatican.

March 27, Urbi et Orbi. Ten days before the start of Holy Week, the holiest of Roman Catholic traditions, an unexpected event happened in the Vatican. Pope Francis stood alone in the vast Saint Peter's Square to bless Catholics around the world suffering under the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by," said the Pope. 

In a historic first, the Argentine performed the rarely recited "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the steps of the basilica to an empty square, addressing those in lockdown across the globe via television, radio and social media.

The "Urbi et Orbi" (To the City and To the World) is normally delivered only on Christmas and Easter, and when a new pope is elected.

 

April 6, Palm Sunday. Pope Francis called for courage in the face of the coronavirus pandemic as he delivered Palm Sunday Mass by livestream instead of before Saint Peter's Square crowds.

Pope Francis called the pandemic a tragedy that must be faced with courage and hope.

"Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: 'Courage, open your heart to my love,'" the Pope said.

 

The Italian capital of Rome and Vatican City have been closed to tourists for nearly a month.

April 9, Maundy Thursday.  The prevailing lockdown forced the Pope to improvise. 

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.

NO WASHING OF THE FEET. A general view shows Pope Francis (rear left) celebrate the 'In Coena Domini' Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, inaugurating the Easter triduum, on April 9, 2020 behind closed doors at St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican. Photo by Alessandro Di Meo/Pool/AFP

NO WASHING OF THE FEET. A general view shows Pope Francis (rear left) celebrate the 'In Coena Domini' Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, inaugurating the Easter triduum, on April 9, 2020 behind closed doors at St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican.

Photo by Alessandro Di Meo/Pool/AFP

April 10, Good Friday. Pope Francis entered a torch-lit, but hauntingly empty Saint Peter's Square for a Good Friday procession.

The Argentine-born pontiff walked up to his podium flanked by 5 prison inmates from the hard-hit northern Italian city of Padua and 5 Vatican doctors and nurses.

Their presence was a tribute to the victims of a disease that has officially claimed nearly 19,000 lives in surrounding Italy.

The dramatic Way of the Cross ceremony around Rome's sumptuously illuminated Colosseum has taken place every year since 1964, normally with thousands of faithful.

April 12, Easter Sunday.  Again among the many firsts this year, Pope Francis livestreams Easter Sunday Mass to those suffering in the solitude of a coronavirus lockdown.

The 83-year-old pontiff spoke to the world's 1.3 billion Catholics from an empty Saint Peter's Basilica at a ceremony attended by just a handful of priests and a small choir that was spaced out across the marble floor.

"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," the Pope said in his Urbi et Orbi (To the City and to the World) message. (READ: [FULL TEXT] Pope Francis' Easter message in the time of COVID-19)

– with reports Agence France Presse/ Rappler.com