Franciscan friars wearing surgical masks and gloves made house calls in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, delivering olive branches to Christians who are self-isolating as a precaution against the coronavirus.
One of the friars used a loud-hailer in the streets of the walled Old City to summon people to their front doors and windows, where they received branches and blessings.
The beginning of the Holy Week leading to Easter, Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem. Scripture speaks of his supporters scattering palm fronds in his path, an act often replicated today with branches of other native trees.
Jerusalem's churches, like Muslim and Jewish places of worship, are closed to the public. That has prompted the faithful to find alternatives to group prayer in a month in which the festivals of Passover, Easter and Ramadan will be marked in close succession.
St. Peter's Square empty
Pope Francis is celebrating Palm Sunday Mass without the public, since the traditional ceremony in St. Peter’s Square was scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, tens of thousands of Romans, tourists and pilgrims, clutching olive tree branches or palm fronds would have flocked to an outdoor Mass led by the pontiff. Instead, Francis was leading the ceremony inside St. Peter’s Basilica, which seemed even more cavernous than usual because it was so empty.
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Besides his aides, a few invited prelates, nuns and laypeople were present, sitting solo in the first pews and staggered meters (yards) apart to reduce the risks of contagion.
Looking pensive, Francis blessed braided palms held by the others, then held one himself.
Palm Sunday solemnly opens Holy Week leading up to Easter, which on this year falls on April 12. The Vatican has announced Francis will preside over all the traditional ceremonies without the public in keeping with lockdown measures in Italy and at the Vatican to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Among the usual events is the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession. This year, instead of the customary candlelit procession at Rome's Colosseum, the Way of the Cross will be presided over by Francis in St. Peter's Square.
The Vatican has said there are seven cases of COVID-19 among the residents or employees of the tiny independent city state.