Pope offers hope in Easter message amid coronavirus lockdown

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Pope Francis has urged people to “not yield to fear” and focused on a “message of hope” as he led an Easter eve mass in an empty St Peter’s Basilica amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday’s vigil, which normally takes place in a church packed with about 10,000 people, was closed to the public and attended by only about two dozen, including a few altar servers and a smaller-than-usual choir.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, it was scaled back to eliminate several traditional features, such as the baptism of adult converts and a long procession up the main aisle of Christendom’s largest church.

“Darkness and death do not have the last word,” the pontiff said, referring to the outbreak.

“Over these weeks, we have kept repeating, ‘All will be well,’ clinging to the beauty of our humanity and allowing words of encouragement to rise up from our hearts. But as the days go by and fears grow, even the boldest hope can dissipate.

“Let us not give in to resignation … We can and must hope,” Francis added at the vigil, which was livestreamed.

Pope Francis will also break with centuries of tradition and livestream the Easter Sunday mass to allow the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics celebrate their holiest festival under a coronavirus lockdown.

Francis will read the message into a camera from the seclusion of his private library and the 83-year-old Argentine has admitted that the entire experience makes him feel “caged”.

His Easter Sunday mass and “Urbi et Orbi” blessing drew 70,000 to Saint Peter’s Square last year.

The Vatican’s entrance is sealed off by armed police wearing facemasks and rubber gloves, as the death toll in Italy has reached 19,468 with more than 152,000 confirmed cases.

Francis himself has reportedly been tested twice for COVID-19 since coming down with a cold at the end of February.

Rome and the rest of Italy have been living under forced confinement since early March due to the pandemic, whose official death toll has soared past 100,000.

‘Time of death’

Fear and confusion in the face of the pandemic is reshaping society and transforming the way religion is observed.

The pope’s virtual prayers are just the most vivid example of religious improvisation in the age of physical distancing and confinement.

In countries around the world, Catholics followed the papal service or masses said by priests in their own empty churches and broadcast on television or over the internet.

“Do not be afraid, do not yield to fear: This is the message of hope. It is addressed to us, today. These are the words that God repeats to us this very night,” Francis said.

He encouraged people to be “messengers of life in a time of death,” again condemning the arms trade and urging those better off to help the poor.

“Let us silence the cries of death, no more wars! May we stop the production and trade of weapons, since we need bread, not guns,” Francis said.

All of the pope’s Holy Week activities were modified, taking place with no public participation.

The Easter Sunday mass usually attracts up to 100,000 people in St Peter’s Square. This year, it will be held inside the church with a symbolic congregation of fewer than 20 people.

Easter, which falls on April 12 for Catholics, is the most important festival in the Christian calendar, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ in celebrations that are traditionally marked with hope.

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