Pope Francis prays before a crucifix at the church of San Marcello al Corso on March 15. The wooden crucifix is credited with protecting Rome from a great plague in 1522. (Photo: Vatican Media)
Pope Francis walked through Rome's deserted streets to pray for an end to the coronavirus as the Vatican said his Easter services will be held without the public for the first time.
He left the Vatican unannounced on March 15 to pray at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then walked along one of Rome’s main streets to visit the church of San Marcello al Corso to pray before a wooden crucifix said to have protected Rome from a great plague in 1522.
The pope prayed for an end to the pandemic and for the sick, their families and health providers and workers keeping pharmacies and food stores open amid Italy’s national lockdown.
The pope and a few security officers walked down an empty Via del Corso, which is usually jammed with shoppers and people taking strolls on Sunday.
Pope Francis had earlier delivered a blessing from a balcony window above a deserted St. Peter's Square, which has been closed to the public.
The 83-year-old pope, who has been suffering from a cold, decided to walk through the streets “as if on a pilgrimage,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
“With his prayer, the Holy Father pleaded for an end to the pandemic that has struck Italy and the world,” Bruni said.
“He also implored the healing of the many sick people, remembered the numerous victims of these past days, and asked that their families and friends might find consolation and comfort. His prayer intention was also extended to healthcare workers, doctors, nurses and all those working in these days to guarantee the smooth functioning of society.”
The pope’s walkabout came just hours after it was announced that the Vatican's Holy Week ceremonies will go ahead behind closed doors so as not to accelerate Italy's devastating infection rate.
The Mediterranean country is battling the second largest Covid-19 outbreak outside mainland China, with 1,809 deaths and 24,747 confirmed cases as of March 15.
In his weekly address, delivered from the papal library, the pope praised priests for their “creativity” in tending to their flocks, especially in the Lombardy region where thousands have been hospitalized or are in quarantine.
Francis said their efforts demonstrated there are “a thousand ways to be near” to the faithful, if not physically.
Although some Italian churches are being allowed to stay open for individual prayer, all public Masses are forbidden during Italy's lockdown.
The Vatican said the pope’s Holy Week and Easter services next month will be held without public participation.
Officials are studying ways to hold them in indoor locations, including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, with small groups attending, media reports said.
The Holy Week services, which begin on Palm Sunday, lead up to Easter, the most important day of the Catholic calendar for the world’s 1.3 billion faithful.
Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, usually takes place in St. Peter’s Square, with the faithful holding up palm branches.
The Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday is held around Rome’s ancient Colosseum.
The main event is the Easter Sunday Mass and the pope’s Urbi et Orbi blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square.