Pope Francis made a brief but intense pilgrimage through the streets of Rome on Sunday, to pray for an end to the public health crisis sparked by the spread of novel coronavirus that has disrupted life in the city and throughout Italy.

A statement from the director of the press office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, on Sunday afternoon explained that Pope Francis first went to the Basilica of St Mary Major — the city’s chief Marian basilica — to pray before the icon of Our Lady Salus populi Romani.

Then he took a brief walk along the Via del Corso to the basilica of St Marcellus, where the crucifix that members of the Servite order carried through the streets of plague-stricken Rome in 1522 — according to some accounts, over and against the objections and attempts of the authorities to halt the procession because of the risk to public health — to St Peter’s, bringing the plague to an end.

“With his prayer,” read the press office communiqué, “the Holy Father invoked [sic] the end of the pandemic that affects Italy and the world, implored healing for the many sick, remembered the many victims of these days, and asked that their family and friends find consolation and comfort.”

Bruni went on to say, “[Pope Francis’s] intention was also addressed to healthcare workers: doctors, nurses; and, to those who guarantee the functioning of society by their labour in these days.”

Earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus. He recited the traditional mid-day act of Marian devotion in the library of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, remarking with gratitude and admiration ahead of the prayer on the tremendous dedication and creativity many priests have shown during the early days of the crisis.

“I’d like to thank all the priests, the creativity of priests,” Pope Francis said, noting especially the response of priests in Italy’s Lombardy region, which is so far the area of the country hardest hit by the virus. “Many reports continue to reach me from Lombardy, attesting this creativity,” Francis went on to say. “It’s true, Lombardy has been badly stricken,” but priests there, “continue to think of a thousand different ways to be close to their people, so the people do not feel themselves abandoned.”

After the Angelus, Pope Francis said: “In this pandemic situation, in which we find ourselves living more or less isolated, we are invited to rediscover and deepen the value of the communion that unites all members of the Church.” The Pope reminded the faithful that this communion is real, and hierarchical. “United with Christ we are never alone, but we form a single Body, of which He is the Head.”

Francis also spoke of the need to recover an appreciation of the practice of spiritual communion.

“It is a union that is nourished with prayer, and also with spiritual communion in the Eucharist,” Pope Francis said, “a highly recommended practice when it is not possible to receive the sacrament.” Francis offered the advice both generally, and with special regard for those, who are physically isolated for the time being. “This I say for everyone, especially for people who live alone,” Francis explained.

Right now, Masses in Italy are closed to the faithful until April 3rd.

An earlier statement from the Holy See press office on Sunday said the physical presence of the faithful at the Vatican’s Holy Week celebrations remains uncertain. “With regard to the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week,” said Bruni in response to journalists’ questions, “I can specify that they are all confirmed. At present, methods of implementation and participation are being studied, which respect the security measures put in place to avoid the spread of coronavirus.”

Bruni then went on to say, “These methods will be communicated as soon as they are defined, in line with the evolution of the epidemiological situation.” He said that the Holy Week celebrations will in any case be broadcast live on radio and television around the world, and streamed on the Vatican News website.

The ingenuity and inventiveness of which Pope Francis spoke are partly in response to the cancellation of public liturgies throughout Italy, part and parcel of “social distancing” efforts that include severe restrictions on commerce and movement designed to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, a highly contagious virus that strikes particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues.

In Rome, parish and mission churches remain open for private prayer and devotion, but priests are saying Mass without the faithful. In the midst of disruption to life and commerce on the Italian peninsula and islands without precedent in peacetime, pastors are turning to technology as part of their response to the spiritual side of the crisis. The (no) Mass effect, in short, may actually be leading some people back to the practice of the faith.

“Yesterday [Saturday] I concelebrated with a group of priests, who streamed the Mass,” from the parish of Santa Maria Addolorata — Our Lady of Sorrows — just off the Via Prenestina, said Fr Philip Larrey, an American priest who serves in Rome and holds the chair of logic and epistemology at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University. “There were 170 people online,” he said, “pretty much a record for a weekday Mass.”

Lots of parishes are streaming their Masses and other devotions as well.

In this journalist’s parish of Sant’Ignazio di Antiochia allo statuario, The pastor, Fr Jess Marano, has also been streaming the Friday Via Crucis. This past Friday’s Via Crucis had 216 views, while the video of this Sunday’s Mass had nearly 400.

Pope Francis has been saying Mass daily in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae at 7am Rome time (6am London), usually with a few concelebrants, but without the faithful. Vatican Media provides the live stream and individual videos for replay.

This Sunday, Pope Francis offered Mass especially for all those working to keep things running.

“On this Sunday in Lent,” Pope Francis offered at the start of Mass, “let us all together pray for the sick, for the persons who suffer.” Then, Francis said, “[T]oday I would like to offer a special prayer for all those, who guarantee the good functioning of society: pharmacy workers, supermarket workers, transportation workers, policemen.

“Let us pray for all those,” Pope Francis went on to say, “who are working to make sure that in this moment, social life – the life of the city – may continue.”

When it comes to pastoral accompaniment of the faithful in this time of crisis, the real questions do not so much involve what to do, as how to do it.

How to bring sick people, the elderly and the housebound — those not (yet) infected — the Sacraments, without exposing them to the risk of infection? Is that even possible? When is it right to run the risk? Several parishes have invited those who are well to seek the Sacraments — Confession and Holy Communion especially — in church outside of Mass. That’s all beside the real hard questions regarding what a priest is to do if he gets a call from a penitent on death’s door.

A letter that leaked to the press, reportedly by the hand of Pope Francis’s personal secretary, Mgr Youannis Lahzi Gaid, puts the matter in a nutshell: “I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need,” Crux reported him as writing. “May it never be said: ‘I won’t go to a church that didn’t come to me when I was in need’.”

The latest figures from Italy show the coronavirus continuing to spread.

The number of active cases climbed from 17,750 on Saturday, to 20,603 on Sunday. The number of those previously infected and now declared free of the virus likewise climbed from 1,966 to 2,335. The death toll climbed from 1,441 to 1,809.

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