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 ceremonyattended by just a handful of priests and a small choir that was spaced outacross Saint Paul's Cathedral's expansive marble floor.
The pandemic raging outsides the Vatican's locked gates haskilled more than 109,000 people and left billions confined to their homes.
The pope's message was livestreamed for the first time — abow to technology in the face of a new illness that has changed the shape ofsociety and altered the way religion is observed.
"For many, this is an Easter of solitude lived amid thesorrow and hardship that the pandemic is causing, from physical suffering toeconomic difficulties," he said.
A handful of priests and a few faithful also gathered at theChurch of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City — locked down like theVatican — to say prayers at the spot where Christians believe Jesus wascrucified and resurrected on Easter.
The majority of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics were inforced confinement as the pope spoke and almost all of the world's churcheswere shut on Christianity' holiest day.
The pope pleaded with the world's leaders to put aside theirpolitical differences and call back their armies during a global healthemergency of a magnitude not seen in 100 years.
"This is not a time for division," Francis said.
"May Christ enlighten all who have responsibility inconflicts, that they may have the courage to support the appeal for animmediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world." He said healthconsiderations required world powers to ease crippling economic sanctionsimposed against their adversaries — a possible reference to those weighingover pandemic-hit Iran.
"In light of the present circumstances, mayinternational sanctions be relaxed, since these make it difficult for countrieson which they have been imposed to provide adequate support to theircitizens," Francis said.
He called for a "reduction, if not the forgiveness, ofthe debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations" and forEuropean nations to show the same "solidarity" they did in the wakeof World War II.
"After the Second World War, this beloved continent wasable to rise again," he said.
"The European Union is presently facing an epochalchallenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the wholeworld." And he offered a prayer for those killed and those mourning thevictims of a disease that spread from China to Europe in February and has nowencircled the world.
"Today my thoughts turn in the first place to the manywho have been directly affected by the coronavirus: the sick, those who havedied and family members who mourn the loss of their loved ones, to whom, insome cases, they were unable even to bid a final farewell," he said. –Religious improvisation –
The pope's virtual Easter Sunday message was the most vividexample of religious improvisation in the age of social distancing andconfinement. The faithful have already followed his advice and found creativesolutions. The archbishop of Panama took to the air and blessed his tinyCentral American nation from a helicopter. The faithful in Spain blastedreligious music from their balconies during Holy Week. Easter Sunday itself sawsome faithful leave wreaths of flowers outside of the locked doors of churchesfrom where festive processions had departed in previous years in thesouthwestern Spanish city of Seville. A parish near the Philippines' capitalManila pasted the empty pews with family photos that the faithful had emailedto the priest. The Orthodox Church in Greece is planning to hold mass behindclosed doors for its Easter on April 19. Jews across the world did their bestby using Zoom or other video-conferencing apps to "seder-in-place"when the eight-day Passover holiday started on Wednesday evening. Statetelevision in Lebanon broadcast mass under lockdown from an empty church northof Beirut.
Catholics in neighbouring Syria — where celebrations hadcontinued in Christian quarters of Damascus despite years of agonising war —stayed home this time because of the virus, but many watched a Facebook Livecelebration by the country's patriarch.
Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told a live massbroadcast that the southeast Asian country's Roman Catholic Church had forgivensuicide bombers behind attacks that killed at least 279 people last Easter.
"We offered love to the enemies who tried to destroyus," he said.
Westminster Abbey in London is following the trend byreleasing Easter podcasts for the faithful of the Anglican Church. And priestsat France's Roman Catholic shrine in the southwestern town of Lourdes wererelaying nine consecutive days of prayers on Sunday by Facebook Live andYouTube.
The lockdown forced the pope to improvise throughout HolyWeek.
In previous years he had observed Holy Thursday servicemarking Christ's last supper by washing the feet of 12 inmates on the outskirtsof Rome.
The virus made that impossible this year.Francis instead saida prayer for the dozens of priests and health workers who have died acrossItaly while attending to the sick. "They are the saints next door, thepriests who gave their lives by serving," Francis said.