Pope opens Easter week rites but no public

The coronavirus has forced the Pope to conduct Palm Sunday Mass behind closed doors.
The coronavirus has forced the Pope to conduct Palm Sunday Mass behind closed doors.

Pope Francis has begun Easter week celebrations in St Peter's Basilica under extraordinary circumstances, with no congregation allowed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Francis led the Palm Sunday Mass accompanied only by a few priests.

For the occasion, a cross venerated for helping bring an end to a 16th-century plague in Rome and an icon of the Virgin Mary offering protection to the Roman people were placed near the altar.

The St Marcellus crucifix and the Salus Populi Romani icon featured in another ceremony on March 27, when the Pope led special prayers for an end to the pandemic in an empty St Peter's Square.

Palm Sunday recalls how, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ was feted by crowds waving palm branches as he entered Jerusalem days before they turned against him and called for his crucifixion.

Due to the pandemic, Easter celebrations at the Vatican have been slimmed down and closed to the public. Traditional events like the Good Friday procession by Rome's Colosseum have been cancelled.

"We will celebrate Holy Week in a truly unusual way," Francis said on Friday.

Easter is the most important Christian holiday, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Several events lead up to it, during a period known as Holy Week.

Australian Associated Press