Pope marks 'Easter of solitude' in virus lockdown

Pope to livestream Easter mass to locked down world
Pope Francis leads the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession during Good Friday celebrations in front of St. Peter's basilica with no public participation due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Vatican. Photo: Reuters

Vatican City: 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 ceremony attended by just a handful of priests and a small choir that was spaced out across Saint Paul's Cathedral's expansive marble floor.

The pandemic raging outsides the Vatican's locked gates has killed more than 109,000 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 changed the shape of 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.

A handful of priests and a few faithful also gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City -- locked down 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' holiest day.

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 world powers to ease crippling economic sanctions imposed against their adversaries -- a possible reference to those weighing over pandemic-hit Iran.

Pope marks 'Easter of solitude' in virus lockdown
Photo: Reuters

"In light of the present circumstances, may international sanctions be relaxed, since these make it difficult for countries on which they have been imposed to provide adequate support to their citizens," Francis said.

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." And he offered a prayer for those killed and those mourning the victims of a disease that spread from China to Europe in February and has now encircled the world.

"Today my thoughts turn in the first place to the many who have been directly affected by the coronavirus: the sick, those who have died and family members who mourn the loss of their loved ones, to whom, in some cases, they were unable even to bid a final farewell," he said.

The pope's virtual Easter Sunday message was the most vivid example of religious improvisation in the age of social distancing and confinement.

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