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WORLD | 12-04-2020 08:02

Pope celebrates joy of Easter amid sorrow of virus pandemic

Pope Francis on Sunday called for the reduction or forgiveness of the debt of poor nations suffering in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pope Francis and Christians around the world marked a solitary Easter Sunday, forced to celebrate the most joyful day in the liturgical calendar amid the sorrowful reminders of the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

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

The Argentine pontiff called Sunday for an "immediate" ceasefire in global conflict and urged European nations to show "solidarity" in the face of a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 109,000 lives worldwide.

"May Christ our peace 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," the pope said in a livestreamed Easter message.

Francis added that it was time for Europe, which he described as his "beloved continent," to "rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity" similar to that shown after World War II.

The porteño pontiff also called for the reduction or forgiveness of the debt of poor nations suffering in the face of the pandemic.

"May all nations be put in a position to meet the greatest needs of the moment through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations," the pope said in his streamed message.

Francis also offered a Easter Sunday prayer for those killed and suffering from the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 100,000 people worldwide.

"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," the pope said.

Balconies and an empty basilica

It was a very different Easter for Christians, yet some tried to get as close to the action as possible.

In Rome, a few lucky Romans participated from their balconies overlooking Santa Emerenziana Church in the northern Trieste neighbourhood, where the priest celebrated a rooftop open-air Mass.

At the Vatican, Francis processed into a largely empty St. Peter's Basilica for Mass, celebrated before a handful of token faithful sitting one per pew and with 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 cobblestoned 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.”

Francis instead celebrated Mass inside the basilica, decorated with only a few potted palms and white hydrangeas. Rather than appearing on the basilica loggia to impart his blessing, Francis was to speak in front of the tomb of St. Peter, underscoring the solitude confronting all of humanity amid lockdown orders and quarantines to prevent further contagion.

Across the world

It was a scene repeated around the world, with churches either closed or, for the few still open for Mass, forcing the faithful to practice social 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.

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.

“Despite the sign of death and fear that we are seeing everywhere all over the world, we have to look at the good all those that are giving their lives for the others,” he said.

Only a handful of clergy were on hand for the Mass, and the streets of the Old City surrounding the church were empty of pilgrims and vendors.

“The message of Easter is that life, despite all, will prevail,” said Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

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.

“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 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.

In Lebanon, home to the largest percentage of Christians in the Arab world, Cardinal Bechara Rai urged the faithful to abide by lockdown measures, which have been imposed as Lebanon endures its worst economic and financial 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.

For Orthodox Christians, this 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 of Cairo. The church made the prayers available on its official Facebook page.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, one the world’s oldest Christian communities, had decided earlier this month to suspend Easter prayers and celebrations at churches and monasteries to contain the spread of the virus.

by Nicole Winfield, Associated Press

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