ROME — On an Easter Sunday like few others in modern history, Pope Francis said Mass under the soaring ceilings of a basilica that was virtually empty of the faithful, as was St. Peter’s Square outside, where the usual throngs were forced to stay away because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Afterward, addressing “a world already faced with epochal challenges and now oppressed by a pandemic severely testing our whole human family,” Francis spoke of “the contagion of hope.”
Last year, an estimated 70,000 faithful crammed into St. Peter’s Square on Easter morning to hear the pope deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”) message after Easter Mass. But people are prohibited from gathering this year because of lockdown rules in Italy, which has had the most confirmed coronavirus cases in Europe.
More than 100 priests in Italy have died after contracting the virus as clergy and nuns have joined the fight to stop its spread.
Faced with a flock that was seeking hope in a time of calamity, the Vatican streamed the pope’s message live for the world.
Around the globe, other leaders and venerated figures imparted Easter messages of their own. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II released what was believed to have been her first Easter message on Saturday night, in which she said that the religious holiday was a time of “light overcoming darkness.”
“This year, Easter will be different for many of us, but by keeping apart we keep others safe,” she said. “Easter isn’t canceled. Indeed, we need Easter as much as ever.”
“We know that coronavirus will not overcome us,” the queen said. “As dark as death can be, particularly for those suffering with grief, light and life are greater. May the living flame of the Easter hope be a steady guide as we face the future.”
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, held Britain’s first national digital Easter Sunday service from his kitchen in London. He spoke of “a very difficult time, in the life of the nation and of the world,” and said his prayers were with those who were suffering, those who cared for them and those who mourn.
The archbishop of Panama took to the air in a helicopter to bless the country. Christians in Spain blasted religious music from their balconies during Holy Week. And the Philippines urged the faithful not to kiss the cross.
In his message, Pope Francis acknowledged that, for many, “this is an Easter of solitude lived amid the sorrow and hardship that the pandemic is causing, from physical suffering to economic difficulties.”
He said his thoughts were with those directly affected by the virus: doctors and nurses, the sick, those who had died, and their family members in mourning. God is with us, he said, “firmly reassuring us: Do not be afraid, I have risen and I am with you still.”
Acknowledging those who face an uncertain economic future and fears of unemployment, the pontiff called on political leaders “to work actively for the common good, to provide the means and resources needed to enable everyone to lead a dignified life and, when circumstances allow, to assist them in resuming their normal daily activities.”
“This is not a time for indifference,” Francis said, “because the whole world is suffering and needs to be united in facing the pandemic.”
The pope called on world leaders to care for the poor, refugees and homeless people. He urged the relaxation of international sanctions, saying they hinder countries from adequately supporting their citizens. And he demanded the reduction, “if not the forgiveness,” of the debts of the poorest nations so that they could best “meet the greatest needs of the moment.”
Francis urged a “global cease-fire in all corners of the world” and an end to conflicts and hostilities in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and many African countries, and for renewed dialogue in the Middle East. He also called for unity and solidarity within the European Union, which “is presently facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world.”
The pandemic, he added, should not obscure the grave humanitarian crises that has crippled may parts of the world, citing those in Mozambique, Greece, Turkey, Libya and Venezuela.
“Indifference, self-centeredness, division and forgetfulness are not words we want to hear at this time. We want to ban these words for ever,” Francis said. May Christ “dispel the darkness of our suffering humanity and lead us into the light of his glorious day, a day that knows no end,” he said,
Then he wished all a “happy Easter,” and gave his blessing.