Pope Francis has begun the first of several Holy Week ceremonies that will be held behind closed doors this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, tens of thousands of Romans and pilgrims, clutching olive branches, would have flocked to an outdoor Mass led by the pontiff.
Instead, Francis led the ceremony inside the shelter of St Peter’s Basilica, which seemed even more cavernous than usual because it was so empty.
Besides his aides, a few invited prelates, nuns and laypeople were present, sitting solo in the first pews and staggered, so they could stay a couple of metres apart to reduce risk of contagion.
Wearing red robes and appearing pensive, Francis blessed braided palms held by the others, then held one himself.
The Vatican has said there are seven cases of Covid-19 among residents or employees of the tiny independent city state.
Giving his homily, Francis said: “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’.”
Francis urged people to hold fast to “what really matters in our lives”.
He said: “The tragedy we are experiencing summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less, to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others.”
In a remark directed to young people, Francis said: “Dear friends, look at the real heroes who come to light these days: they are not famous, rich and successful people.”
Instead, he said, “they are those who are giving themselves in order to serve others. Feel called yourselves to put your lives on the line”.