Pope Francis led Palm Sunday services in an almost empty St Peter’s Basilica because of coronavirus restrictions for the second consecutive year.
He used the occasion to warn his global flock that the devil is taking advantage of the pandemic to spread evil.
In pre-coronavirus times, Palm Sunday, which marks the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, tens of thousands of people would pack St Peter’s Square holding olive branches and intricately woven palm fronds in a massive outdoor ceremony.
Instead, only about 120 members of the faithful were permitted to take part in Sunday’s Mass, joining the pope and about 30 cardinals in a secondary wing of the huge basilica, reports the New York Post.
“Last year we were shocked. This year we are more under pressure and the economic crisis has become heavy,” Francis said in his traditional Sunday noon address after the Mass.
Italy is in the middle of another national lockdown, which is due to end after Easter. Last week, the pope ordered cardinals and other clerics to take pay cuts to save the jobs of other employees.
“The devil is taking advantage of the crisis to sow distrust, desperation and discord,” he said, adding that the pandemic had brought physical, psychological and spiritual suffering.
Since he was elected in 2013, Francis has made clear that he believes the devil is real, saying in a 2018 document that it is a mistake to consider him a myth.
In both his homily during the Mass and his comments afterward, Francis said the pandemic made it more important than ever to look after those in difficulty, the poor and the suffering.
Nearly everyone who took part in the Mass, except the pope and the choir, wore masks.
Palm Sunday commemorates the day the gospels say Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was hailed by the people, only to be crucified five days later.
During the Mass, the pope walked with a limp. He suffers from sciatica, which causes pain in his legs when it flares up.
The remainder of the pope’s Holy Week services – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day this Sunday, will also take place with a limited number of participants.