Pope holds solitary Easter Mass, calls COVID-19 pandemic an 'epochal challenge'

Pope Francis called for solidarity the world over to confront the "epochal challenge" posed by the coronavirus pandemic, as Christians celebrated a solitary Easter Sunday, blending the joyful feast day with sorrow over the toll the virus has already taken.

Francis urges faithful to pray for the sick, the dead and the elderly confined alone

Pope Francis reads his Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World) message in St. Peter's Basilica with no public participation on Easter Sunday at the Vatican. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

Pope Francis called for solidarity the world over to confront the "epochal challenge" posed by the coronavirus pandemic, as Christians celebrated a solitary Easter Sunday, blending the joyful feast day with sorrow over the toll the virus has already taken.

Families that normally would attend morning Mass wearing their Easter best and later join friends for celebratory lunches hunkered down at home. Police checkpoints in Europe and closed churches around the globe left the faithful with the only option to watch Easter services online or on TV.

A few lucky Rome residents attended Mass from their balconies overlooking Santa Emerenziana church in the northern Trieste neighbourhood, where a priest celebrated a rooftop open-air service.

"We feel close to each other despite this distance," parishioner Luca Rosati said from his balcony. "We can experience from here what we normally would experience inside the church, as a community."

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Pope Francis called on Sunday for global solidarity in fighting the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, urging the relaxation of international sanctions, debt relief for poor nations and ceasefires in all conflicts. 0:52

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.

"The message of Easter is that life, despite all, will prevail," Pizzaballa said during Mass attended by a few clerics, with the streets of the surrounding Old City devoid of pilgrims and vendors.

Across Africa, many Christians marked Easter at home, following services broadcast on television and radio. In Nigeria's capital, a Catholic Mass was celebrated in Lagos's empty cathedral, while Congo braced for a battle with both COVID-19 and an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Christians in Canada also celebrated the holiday in self-isolation. 

Paul-André Durocher, Archbishop of Gatineau, said Catholic churches in Canada are treating the pandemic as a "time of creativity," turning to new technologies to continue old traditions while churches are closed during the holy week. 

"We recognize that this is very hard for many of our Catholic faithful. It's also hard for our priests, because for them it is the high point of the liturgical year," he said.

Durocher said some priests were holding mass through platforms like Zoom, while others broadcast their celebrations on YouTube and Facebook Live.

"They're celebrating mass alone, but making it available to their parishes that way," he said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders across the country are taking a rare day off from updating the nation on the pandemic.

In a written message marking the day, which comes nearly one month after the country started locking down to slow the spread of COVID-19, Trudeau commemorated the personal sacrifice and compassion that many Canadians are exhibiting during the pandemic.

Pope addresses humanity under lockdown

At the Vatican, Francis celebrated Mass in a largely empty St. Peter's Basilica, with a handful of faithful sitting one per pew and and the choir's Kyrie hymn echoing off the bare marble floors.

Normally, St. Peter's Square would be awash in fresh flowers for Easter, with tulips and orchids decorating the piazza's promenade in a riot of colour to underscore Easter's message of life and rebirth following Christ's crucifixion.

This year, however, the cobblestone piazza was bare. Police barricades ringed the square, blocking the tens of thousands who would normally flock to hear the Pope's Mass and noontime Urbi et Orbi speech and blessing "to the city and the world."

Priest Lorenzo Fedele leads an Easter Sunday Mass on the roof of the Santa Maria della Salute church in Naples as Italy remains on lockdown to try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Ciro De Luca/Reuters)

Francis instead stayed indoors, underscoring the solitude confronting all of humanity amid lockdown orders to prevent further virus infections.

In his Easter address, Francis urged political leaders to provide hope and opportunity to the millions of newly jobless. He appealed to the EU in particular to step up to the "epochal challenge" posed by COVID-19, which has ravaged Italy, Spain and other European countries.

"After the Second World War, this beloved continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries of the past," Francis said. "This is not a time for self-centredness because the challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons."

He urged the faithful to pray for the sick, the dead and the elderly confined alone. And broadening his horizons, he called for sanctions relief, debt forgiveness and ceasefires to calm conflicts and financial crises around the globe.

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Paul-André Durocher, Archbishop of Gatineau, says Catholic churches in the region are treating the pandemic as a “time of creativity,” turning to new technologies to continue old traditions while churches are closed. 1:41

Lonely Mass services held globally  

Francis' lonely Mass was a scene that was repeated around the world, with churches either closed or, at the few still open, requiring the faithful to practice physical distancing. In South Korea, where one outbreak was tied to a church sect, services were largely held online.

A small number of masked faithful attended service at Seoul's Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the biggest churches in South Korea. They were seated notably apart from each other, and choir members sang hymns from behind masks.

The Church of England shuttered its churches, prompting the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to celebrate Easter Sunday service from his kitchen in London. The spiritual leader of 85 million Anglicans worldwide, Welby delivered his sermon in full robes behind a makeshift altar on his dining room table.

Brazilian priest Marcelo Santiago celebrates Easter Mass behind the closed doors of the Nossa Senhora do Carmo church in Ouro Preto. (Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images)

"Welcome to the kitchen of our home on Easter Day," he said. "Once this epidemic is conquered here and elsewhere, we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all was normal."

In Lebanon, home to the largest percentage of Christians in the Arab world, Cardinal Bechara Rai urged the faithful to abide by virus lockdown measures even as Lebanon endures its worst economic crisis in decades.

"We are praying so that Lebanese officials work together in the spirit of collaboration to revive Lebanon economically, financially and socially," Rai 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.

In New Zealand, Catholic bishops wrote a special pastoral letter to worshipers stuck at home, acknowledging the stresses and uncertainties of this Easter like no other but urging the faithful to take comfort in time with family.

"This time has proved to be a reflective time enabling us to refocus or revision ourselves and how we live," the letter said.

Catholic church altar boys walk down the aisle through the empty Holy Rosary parish church with photos of parishioners taped on church pews, as part of physical distancing measures amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, in Angeles City, Philippines. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

For Orthodox Christians, 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, Cairo. The church made the prayers available on its Facebook page. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one the world's oldest Christian communities.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it would hold Easter services in Moscow next Sunday without the faithful present, citing an order from the city's chief epidemiologist prohibiting mass gatherings.

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