VATICAN CITY (AP) — Celebrating Palm Sunday Mass for a second time in the pandemic without crowds of faithful, Pope Francis said while shock dominated the first year of the COVID-19 health emergency, now people are more weary, with the economic crisis growing heavier.
Traditionally, the pope leads a Palm Sunday procession through St. Peter’s Square in front of tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists clutching olive branches and braided palms before celebrating an outdoor Mass.
But as Francis did in spring 2020, just weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak erupted in Italy — the first country in the West to be hit by the pandemic — the pontiff led the solemn service, which begins Holy Week, inside St. Peter's Basilica. Pandemic safety concerns and Italian government restrictions on travel and other movements while the country struggles with a surge of infections has kept away the usual throngs of tourists and pilgrims.
“For the second time we are living it (Holy Week) in the context of the pandemic," Francis said, with around 120 faithful, including nuns and a few families or couples, sitting far apart in the pews. ”Last year, we were more shocked. This year it is more trying for us. And the economic crisis has become heavy."
Like those in the pews, participants in the procession of 30 red-robed cardinals all wore protective masks, but Francis, clutching a braided palm, didn't use one. He limped noticeably, at least once helped up stairs by an aide. Francis has long suffered from sciatica, and recently had a bad bout of the condition, which can trigger leg and back pain.
Amid the suffering of the pandemic, Francis said, “we meet the faces of so many brothers and sisters in difficulty.”
“Let us not pass by, let us allow our hearts to be moved with compassion, and let us draw near,” Francis said. He had dedicated much of his papacy to drawing attention to those living on society's margins, including the homeless, the poor and migrants.
Except for a Way of the Cross procession in St. Peter’s Square to mark Good Friday, all the Holy Week services at the Vatican this year will be held inside the basilica, including Easter Mass at the culmination of Holy Week. Rank-and-file faithful will be barred from attending the Good Friday night service, a torch-lit ritual which usually takes place at the Colosseum in Rome.
The Italian government has imposed strict pandemic-safety measures for Easter weekend. Those measures include a nationwide ban on dining at restaurants or cafes and on travel between regions and towns. People are allowed only one holiday visit per day to homes of family or friends from April 3 to 5.
Francis ended his remarks by inviting prayers for victims of a suicide bombing outside a crowded Roman Catholic cathedral during Palm Sunday services in Indonesia, which wounded at least 14 people, police in the Asian nation said.
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