VATICAN CITY – His voice echoing through the nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica, a somber Pope Francis celebrated one of the strangest Easter celebrations in Vatican history Sunday amid Italy’s national lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis cast a solitary figure as he addressed the outbreak that has so far claimed more than 110,000 lives worldwide, nearly 20,000 of them in Italy, which surrounds Vatican City. More than 20,600 people have died in the United States. The pandemic has prompted quarantines and social distancing orders globally, from China, where it began, across Europe, South America and the U.S.
“This is an Easter of solitude lived amid the sorry and hardship the pandemic is causing, whether from physical suffering or economic difficulties,” Francis said in Italian.
Millions of Christians globally today are celebrating Easter, marking the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion. Across the United States, many churches were holding similar remote services intended to help slow the infection's spread.
Francis mentioned those directly impacted by the spread of the virus, including medical personnel, the sick, the dead, and family members mourning their losses. It was a far cry from Easter Sunday a year ago, when an estimated 75,000 people packed St. Peter's Square as Francis urged those in zones of conflict to lay down their arms.
In Sunday’s Mass, he called for the faithful watching from home to maintain their faith in what he called “trying times.”
“Our world is already faced with epochal challenges,” the pontiff said. “Now it is oppressed by a pandemic that is severely testing our whole human family.”
Outside the basilica in St. Peter’s Square, security staff that would normally be assuring the safe movement of the faithful into the square for Mass were instead turning them away.
Despite not being able to attend Easter services in person, many said the 83-year-old pontiff still gives them strength. Anna Maria Donaldson, 39, is a U.N. consultant from New Jersey who has attended the pope's Easter Mass annually since moving to Rome in 2015. This year she watched the live broadcast on her laptop from her nearby apartment.
“I feel stronger after watching the Mass,” Donaldson said. “You could see the weight of the pandemic on the shoulders of the pope as he celebrated Mass. He is being strong to help us be stronger.”
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Across the United States, some church leaders and conservative politicians fought back against closures and social distancing orders, although most churches were following distancing guidelines.
In Kansas, the state's highest court is considering whether Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has the power to ban religious and funeral services of more than 10 attendees during the coronavirus pandemic.
And in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said anyone attending a mass gathering, such as a church service, may have their license plates recorded so attendees can be contacted by government officials and required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
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U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican who represents Kentucky, said that goes too far. "Taking license plates at church?" Paul tweeted late Friday. "Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here."
Lyman reported from Vatican City. Hughes reported from Denver.