Millions of Christians across the world today marked a second Palm Sunday during the pandemic as Pope Francis warned ‘the Devil is taking advantage of the crisis to sow distrust, desperation and discord’.
The pontiff traditionally 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 last spring, just weeks after the Covid-19 outbreak erupted in Italy and the country became the epicentre of the European epidemic, he led the solemn service that begins Holy Week inside St Peter’s Basilica.
The usual throngs of crowds have been kept away by government restrictions on travel and other movements imposed during another Italian lockdown, as coronavirus cases surge across Europe.
In England, clergy broke into song as newly-eased curbs allowed small choirs to sing inside cathedrals – with three lay clerks at Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire among those performing the Sunday Eucharist.
Polish Catholics attended a mass led by Krakow’s Archbishop, Marek Jedraszewski, while Christian worshippers and clergy held palm fronds during a procession outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.
And Christians celebrated Palm Sunday during masses at the Lady of Damascus church in the al-Qassaa neighborhood in Syria and St Anthony Church in Lahore, Pakistan, to begin the observance of Holy Week.
Palm Sunday is the Christian holiday on the Sunday before Easter, and ceremonies commemorate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem through the laying of palm leaves, prayer and Eucharist songs.
In his traditional Sunday noon address after the Mass, Francis said that while shock dominated the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, people are now more weary, with the economic crisis growing heavier.
‘The Devil is taking advantage of the crisis to sow distrust, desperation and discord,’ he said, adding that the pandemic had brought physical, psychological and spiritual suffering.
In pre-coronavirus times, tens of thousands of people would pack St Peter’s Square holding olive branches and intricately woven palm fronds in an outdoor ceremony. Instead, just 120 members of the faithful participated in Sunday’s Mass, joining the pope and about 30 cardinals in a secondary wing of the huge basilica.
Since he was elected in 2013, 84-year-old pontiff Francis has made clear that he believes the devil to be real, saying in a 2018 document that it was mistaken to consider him a myth.
In both his homily during the Mass and his comments afterward, Francis aid the pandemic made it more important than ever to look after those in difficulty, the poor and the suffering.
Like those in the pews, participants in the procession of 30 red-robed cardinals except the pope, who was clutching a braided palm, and the choir all wore masks.
Francis limped noticeably, at least once helped up stairs by an aide. The pontiff 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, he 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.’
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, including 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, according to police.
In England, clergy broke into song to mark Palm Sunday as newly eased coronavirus restrictions allowed small choirs to sing inside cathedrals. From Sunday, groups are allowed to practise and perform inside places of worship in England if they are socially distanced and limited to ‘as few singers as possible’.
Three lay clerks at Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire were among those performing the Sunday Eucharist to socially distanced congregations inside the church, and many more watching from their homes via YouTube.
As he welcomed his congregation of around 50 people, the cathedral’s Dean, John Dobson, described having the trio present as ‘marvellous’. ‘It is wonderful that we’ll see at the front, when the procession arrives, lay clerks – only three, we’re only allowed three at a time – but we will have lay clerks singing and that’s a marvellous thing,’ he said.
The service involved the distribution of palms for the Holy Communion, and morning prayer ahead of the performance by the trio.
A donkey called Lily, along with her owner and Canon Michael Gisbourne, also greeted worshippers at the cathedral of the Diocese of Leeds, in the first major service the building has held since early January – but the animal was not allowed indoors due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Under previous guidelines in England, only one person was allowed to sing or chant indoors when deemed ‘essential to an act of worship’, or a maximum of three people in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
For Palm Sunday and Easter celebrations, the size of congregations in England will depend on the space available in the grounds, and religious authorities must carry out a risk assessment to ensure worshippers can be socially distanced.