How Pope Francis is observing Holy Week in isolation

Pope Francis will make history Sunday when he delivers his Easter blessings inside the cavernous St. Peter’s Basilica standing alone at the altar.

In the past, the Mass commemorating the end of Holy Week was always held outdoors, with the Pope greeting crowds in St. Peter’s Square from the central balcony of the imposing Renaissance church as he delivered his Urbi e Orbi message — meaning “to the city and to the world.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic forced Italy into lockdown last month, the pontiff has become a webcam master. The octogenarian prelate speaks to cardinals and bishops around the world using a computer from his ancient quarters behind the high walls of the Vatican, and live-streams a daily early-morning mass from a small chapel to millions of Catholics.

In this time of plague — the Pope recently described it as an “unexpected, turbulent storm” — when millions are confined to their homes and Italy has suffered more than 19,000 coronavirus-related deaths in two months, the 83-year-old Pope continues to adapt to the grim reality.  The Good Friday Way of the Cross service was moved from its century-old site at Rome’s Colosseum to outside the basilica with the prelate and a handful of attendants.

At the Vatican, whose ornate churches and museums remain closed to the public, the work continues electronically.

“The Curia is trying to carry on its work, and to live normally,” Pope Francis said in an interview last week with The Tablet, an online Catholic weekly. “It’s been well thought out. We are sticking to the measures ordered by the health authorities. … Everyone works in his office or from his room, using technology. Everyone is working; there are no idlers here.”

Mealtimes are organized in two shifts at the Santa Marta, the modest papal residence, to optimize social distancing among the elderly cardinals and bishops who live in the guesthouse, he said, adding that a special team of secretaries brings him all of his own meals in his room.

Since the lockdown, the Pope has canceled all public appointments and events although he has continued to meet with people in private, attended by a special “anti-contagion team” who are equipped with disinfectant, according to Italy’s La Stampa newspaper. Anyone who has an appointment with Pope Francis in the Holy Rooms of the papal palace “must wash their hands with the gel,” and sit “over a meter apart from each other, but with no masks,” according to the newspaper. The rooms are sanitized every morning.

At the onset of the pandemic last month, fear and anxiety spread at the secretive papal enclave after the Pope, who lost part of a lung as a young man, came down with a fever and chills. He was tested for the coronavirus in early March. Although the results were negative, he was tested a second time after a high Italian prelate who works in the Secretariat of State and lives in the guest house tested positive and was hospitalized.

There are currently 30 residents at the Santa Marta guest house, which is normally reserved for visiting clergy. But since becoming pope in 2013, the Argentine-born Jesuit has made his residence there, eschewing the more opulent Apostolic Palace, which has historically been the official papal residence.

There are eight confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Vatican, which has a population of 603 set among 108 acres. Among the residents are 100 relatively young Swiss Guards, but the bulk of the population is made up of a high risk coterie of elderly clergy, including retired Pope Benedict XVI, who is now 92 and said to be in frail health.

With medical supplies scarce around the world, the Vatican recently had to rely on a New York real estate developer and UN ambassador to Dominica to obtain 700 COVID-19 test kits from the US last month, La Stampa reported.

“You can’t find these test kits anywhere anymore,” said Paolo Zampolli, whose family in Italy is related to a former pope — Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978. “I offered to help them because I love the Pope. I felt it was my duty to help the church any way I could.”

Pope Francis is also helping the church remain relevant in a global emergency. In addition to the daily use of technology to get his message to the world’s Catholic faithful, he is also modernizing in another way. Last month, the Pope gave special permission for Catholics who cannot get close to a priest because of the contagion, to confess their sins directly to God before they die.

“This is the freedom of the Spirit in the midst of a crisis,” Pope Francis said, “not a Church closed off in institutions.”

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