Pope Francis will break with centuries of tradition and livestream Easter Sunday mass to allow the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics to celebrate their holiest holiday under a coronavirus lockdown.
Fear and confusion in the face of a disease whose official death toll has soared past 100,000 — but whose real one is feared to be higher still — are reshaping society and transforming the way religion is observed.
Even such hallowed traditions as the pope’s messages to the faithful on Saint Peter’s Square have been replaced by prayers that Francis reads into a camera from the seclusion of his private library.
His only audience is the camera and the 83-year-old Argentine has admitted that the entire experience makes him feel “caged”.
– Life in confinement –
Francis cut a lonely but striking figure when he slowly entered a dark and starkly empty Vatican square in his white robe for a torch-lit Good Friday procession.
It had taken place around the Roman Colosseum in the presence of at least 20,000 faithful for more than 50 years.
But Rome and the rest of Italy have been living under forced confinement since early March.
His Easter Sunday Mass and “Urbi et Orbi” blessing drew 70,000 to Saint Peter’s Square last year.
The Vatican’s entrance is now sealed off by armed police wearing facemasks and rubber gloves.
The pope has openly admitted that he was struggling along with everyone else to make sense of these extraordinary times.
“We have to respond to our confinement with all our creativity,” Francis said in an interview published by several Catholic newspapers this week.
“We can either get depressed and alienated … or we can get creative.”
– Religious improvisation –
The pope’s virtual prayers are just the most vivid example of religious improvisation in the age of social distancing and confinement. The faithful have already followed his advice and found creative solutions.
The archbishop of Panama took to the air and blessed his tiny Central American nation from a helicopter. The faithful in Spain blasted religious music from their balconies during Holy Week.
The scale of the unfolding tragedy has seen a New York City cathedral replace rows of wooden seats with hospital beds in case the surrounding emergency wards fill to overflowing.
In the Philippines churches across the overwhelmingly Catholic nation were shuttered due to the virus, but some have done their best to adapt to the unprecedented lockdown.
A parish north of the capital Manila had worshippers email to the church photos of their families, more than 1,000 of which are now pasted to pews for Easter.
“Those photos are the representations of the people who are watching and attending mass through livestreaming, so we also feel their presence virtually,” said Reverend Father Mark Christopher De Leon, of the Holy Rosary Parish Church in Angeles City.
Easter is normally greeted with parades, church services and large family parties in the Philippines but as the country battles the contagion those events were cancelled in major cities and severely curtailed in the countryside.
The Orthodox Church in Greece is planning to hold mass behind closed doors for its Easter on April 19.
“Seven out of 10 Greeks enjoy roasting lamb for Easter,” Greek meat trader Angelos Asteriou told AFP in Paris.
“That’s not happening this year.”
Jews across the world did their best by using Zoom or other video conferencing apps to “seder-in-place” when the eight-day Passover holiday started on Wednesday evening.
Westminster Abbey in London is following the technological trend by releasing Easter podcasts for the faithful of the Anglican Church.
And priests at France’s Roman Catholic shrine in the southwestern town of Lourdes were relaying nine consecutive days of prayers on Sunday by Facebook Live and YouTube.
In Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told an Easter mass broadcast live from a television studio without an audience that Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church had forgiven suicide bombers behind attacks that killed at least 279 people last Easter.
“We offered love to the enemies who tried to destroy us,” he said.
– ‘Saints next door’ –
The pope himself has in previous years observed Holy Thursday service marking Christ’s last supper by washing the feet of 12 inmates on the outskirts of Rome.
The virus has now made this impossible.
Francis instead said a prayer for the dozens of priests and health workers who have died across Italy while attending to the sick since the outbreak began in the Mediterranean country’s north in February.
“They are the saints next door, the priests who gave their lives by serving,” Francis said.
He invited five nurses and doctors to accompany him for the Good Friday processions in order to highlight their profession’s sacrifices over the past month.
Francis himself has reportedly been tested twice for COVID-19 since coming down with a cold at the end of February.
He told the Catholic newspapers that people across the world could try to spiritually escape their confinement through introspection.
“So: to be in lockdown, but yearning, with that memory that yearns and begets hope,” the pope said.
“This is what will help us escape our confinement.”