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Pandemic turns Holy Week celebrations empty and silent

The coronavirus pandemic has made this year’s Holy Week one like never before. With stricken Italy extending a nationwide lockdown into May, Pope Francis has been holding services only via TV and online. And in Israel, the sacred sites of Jerusalem’s Old City, touchstones of faith for three religions, remain empty. Special correspondent Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome on an eerie Holy Week.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, on Good Friday, the Italian prime minister announced a further lockdown of his stricken nation until at least May 4.

    And, in Israel, a nationwide stay-at-home order remains in effect.

    With empty streets in Rome and the sacred sites of the Old City of Jerusalem, special correspondent Sabina Castelfranco reports on a very different Holy Week.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    Holy Week at the Vatican this year, no faithful, no tourists, only the police making sure not a soul breaks the rules.

    Everyone here must stay indoors to stop the spread of COVID-19. Authorities are taking no chances. And after weeks of mounting dead, the five-week lockdown appears to be working. The number of newly infected is declining.

    The streets of the Eternal City lie empty, nearly devoid of life, famous landmarks like the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain deserted. The Vatican too has had a small number infected inside its walls and adopted similar distancing measures.

    As the crisis peaked, Pope Francis delivered an extraordinary and stark Urbi et Orbi message to Rome and the world.

  • Pope Francis (through translator):

    We have realized we are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but, at the same time, important and needed, all of us called to row together.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, and St. Peter's Square is normally packed with tens of thousands waving palm fronds and olive branches, but not this year.

    Inside st. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis and attendants celebrated a lonely mass.

  • Pope Francis (through translator):

    The tragedy we are experiencing in these days summons us to take serious the things that are serious, and not be caught up in those that matter less.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    Pope Francis decided that all Holy Week ceremonies this year would be held behind closed doors inside St. Peter's Basilica, except for one, the Way of the Cross. That solemn moment recounts Jesus' death by crucifixion more than 2,000 years ago.

    The Way of the Cross candlelit procession is traditionally held at Rome's ancient Colosseum and attended by thousands of faithful. This year, Pope Francis prayed in an empty St. Peter's Basilica, the 83-year-old pope alone.

    In Jerusalem, normally packed streets of the Old City lie eerily deserted. Here, along these ancient stone paths, Jesus is said to have walked and suffered the 14 stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa, or painful path, to crucifixion.

    Today in Jerusalem, only a few friars walked the path, in a procession usually marked by thousands of pilgrims.

    Father Francesco Patton lamented the loss, but saw meaning in the struggles of so many.

  • Franceso Patton:

    When I think to those who are in the hospitals and in the houses fighting with the coronavirus, in some way, they are walking a very hard and personal Via Dolorosa.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    This year, the devoted are nowhere to be seen, as Israel has gone into total lockdown.

    Israel controls most access to the Old City and its sites sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews, who began celebrating Passover this week, marking the hope of rebirth and their ancient deliverance from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

    And in this Old City, the beating heart of three faiths, only the cats remain. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the spot where Jesus Christ was said to have been crucified and buried, the ancient doors closed for the first time in nearly 700 years, since the Black Plague.

    In Paris today, the city's archbishop, Michel Aupetit, celebrated mass in the charred hulk of Notre Dame, nearly a year after the cathedral burned.

  • Michel Aupetit (through translator):

    Today, we are in this half-fallen cathedral to say that life still exists.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    A crown of thorns, as Jesus is said to have worn on the cross, rescued after the fire lay on a makeshift altar.

  • Michel Aupetit (through translator):

    It's a magnificent symbol that tells us that you will accompany us in the height of our suffering.

  • Sabina Castelfranco:

    Easter Sunday at the Vatican normally marks the holiest day in the Christian calendar, as the faithful the world over celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

    This year, it will be different in St. Peter's Square, as Pope Francis delivers his message of hope and renewal to a world in sore need of both.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Sabina Castelfranco in Rome.

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