Pope Francis ventures into a deserted Rome on Sunday.
The coronavirus has made short work of the hustle and bustle of cities, converting them into ghost towns. Now, deserted streets — bereft of the pestering vehicle honks, noise of vendors hawking their goods and screams of children playing – are increasingly becoming a common sight.
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Even the spiritual leader of over a billion Roman Catholics, visibly vexed by the virus, has seen, first-hand, such desolate sights.
Pope Francis ventured into a deserted Rome on Sunday to pray at two shrines for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, as the Vatican said his Easter services would be held without the public for the first time.
Italy has been hit harder that any other European nation. The country's death toll rose to 1,809 on Sunday and the total number of cases spiralled to 24,747.
The Pope left the Vatican unannounced to pray at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then walked along one of Rome's main streets to visit St. Marcello church to pray before a crucifix that was used in a procession when the plague hit Rome in 1522.
A Vatican statement said he prayed for an end to the pandemic and also for the sick, their families and health providers and workers keeping pharmacies and food stories open amid a national lockdown.
A Vatican picture showed the Pope and a small security detail walking on an empty Via del Corso, which is usually packed with shoppers and people taking strolls on Sunday.
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The Vatican said earlier that his Holy Week and Easter services next month would be held without public participation, a step believed to be unprecedented in modern times.
It was not clear how the massive events would be scaled down but sources said officials were studying ways to hold them in indoor locations, including St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, with small representative groups attending.
Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus' entry to Jerusalem, usually takes place in St. Peter's Square, which traditionally is decorated with olive trees while those in the crowd hold up palm branches.
Another Holy Week event, the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, takes place around Rome's ancient Colosseum.
The main event is the Easter Sunday Mass and the Pope's twice yearly "Urbi et Orbi" blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Square.
The Netherlands usually fly in tens of thousands of flowers to decorate the papal altar and the entire square, but the Dutch ambassador to the Vatican, Caroline Weijers, said last week that there would be no flowers this year.
The Pope, the Vatican – a tiny city-state surrounded by Rome – and the church in predominantly Catholic Italy have all been forced to modify centuries of tradition because of the outbreak.
In Italy, as elsewhere, masses have been cancelled to avoid people gathering. Bishops have urged the faithful to participate via television and the internet.
In staunchly Catholic Poland, which has reported just over 100 coronavirus cases and three deaths, church authorities recommended the faithful watch mass on TV or online after the government banned public gatherings larger than 50 people.
Many priests preached to nearly empty pews on Sunday.
"It is such a depressing feeling for a priest," said Wieslaw Niemyjski, who conducts services in a cathedral in Drohiczyn, a town of roughly 2,000 people in eastern Poland.
The noon children's Mass usually attracts about 200 people, he said. "Today there were maybe 17 people, plus five acolytes, three priests. I've never seen anything like this before."
Four million people — an estimated 72 per cent of them men — will return to their construction sites and factories as the economically and emotionally shattered country tries to get back to work.
“I am happy to be making trips again,” he said in brief comments to reporters aboard the plane, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic which has prevented him from travelling. The Iraq trip is his first outside Italy since November 2019.
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