VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis holds a palm branch as he celebrates Palm Sunday mass behind closed doors at St Peter’s Basilica mass in The Vatican, during the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. – AFP

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis called for courage in the face of the coronavirus pandemic as he delivered Palm Sunday mass by livestream instead of before Saint Peter’s Square crowds. The Vatican is abandoning centuries of tradition and refraining from public celebrations of the official start of the Catholic world’s Holy Week. Pope Francis called the pandemic a tragedy on Sunday that must be faced with courage and hope.

“Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: ‘Courage, open your heart to my love’,” the pope said. Palm Sunday marks the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Easter Sunday on April 12 celebrates his resurrection from the dead. But many of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics are observing the sacred days under home confinement-just like the 83-year-old pontiff.

Pope Francis has been communicating with the outside world by video so that crowds do not gather to see and hear him in one of the world’s most famous squares. Vatican City itself has been closed to tourists for nearly a month as part of global efforts to stop the spread of a disease that has officially killed more than 65,000 people worldwide. The Argentine-born pontiff went on to call on the faithful to overcome their fears and remember that they are not alone.

“When we have our back to the wall, when we find ourselves at a dead end, with no light and no way of escape, when it seems that God himself is not responding, we should remember that we are not alone,” the pope said in his prayer. Pope Francis himself went down with a cold in late February and was reportedly tested for COVID-19 twice as a precaution because seven people in the Vatican have caught the virus. The Vatican says the pope is now in good health. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later on April 19.

Blessing by helicopter
In another development, Panama’s Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa took to the skies to deliver the traditional Catholic Palm Sunday blessing from a helicopter after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of churches across the country. The Church is abandoning centuries of tradition and refraining from public celebrations of the official start of Holy Week among Christian faithful.

Ulloa celebrated mass at Panama’s Howard Air Force base before overflying the city’s deserted streets and surrounding countryside. Along with the two priests accompanying him, the archbishop wore a white mask that covered his mouth and nose. “We are living through an unprecedented event in the history of Christianity, celebrating Holy Week without a congregation in our churches,” the archbishop said.

Ulloa carried with him a statue of Santa Maria La Antigua, Panama’s patron saint “to protect the country from disease,” as many residents placed palm fronds on balconies and at front doors to receive the blessing from the air. Ulloa dedicated Holy Week to health workers “and so many people who are determined to advance our country at the cost of risking their own lives.” The ceremony is normally performed in churches where priests sprinkle holy water on palm fronds brought by the congregation.

Palm Sunday marks the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Easter Sunday on April 12 celebrates his resurrection from the dead. After shutting its borders and closing schools Panama decreed a total lockdown. Since last week, men and women are being allowed to leave their homes on alternate days to shop for food and essential medicines. Nobody is allowed out on Sunday. The Central American country has registered 1,801 infections with 46 deaths from the pandemic, according to the latest figures.- Agencies