Pope Francis Holds Palm Sunday Mass to No Crowds

Pope Francis delivered his annual Palm Sunday sermon to a sparse congregation this morning due to restrictions against large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ceremony, which ordinarily draws thousands to the Vatican's St. Peter's Square, took place inside St. Peter's Basilica and was closed to the public for the first time in recorded history. In lieu of physical attendance, a live stream of the event was available to watch online via the Vatican's official news platform as well as several additional outlets.

According to an Associated Press report published Sunday morning, only a few nuns, clergy and members of the papal household were present for the service.

"We will celebrate Holy Week in a truly unusual way," Pope Francis told supporters in a recorded video address shared to Vatican News' YouTube channel on Friday. The message followed an official announcement from papal officials at the end of March regarding audience participation in Holy Week, which refers to the week immediately preceding Easter in Christianity.

"Because of the current global public health emergency, all the Liturgical Celebrations of Holy Week will take place without the physical presence of the faithful," the Prefecture of the Papal Household said in an alert statement still posted to its website. "Furthermore, this Prefecture informs that until April 12 the General Audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website."

Similar to its Palm Sunday mass, the Vatican's remaining Holy Week celebrations will be held inside St. Peter's Basilica "without participation of the people," per a March 27 press release. The statement noted that the changes had become necessary "as a result of the extraordinary situation that has arisen, due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Pope Francis
Pope Francis leads Palm Sunday mass inside Vatican City's St. Peter's Basilica on April 5. For the first time, members of the public cannot attend. Franco Origlia/Getty

Last week, the Vatican confirmed its seventh employee had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Its press office director, Matteo Bruni, notified the public on Thursday, explaining that the individual had been "in isolation since mid-March" after his wife was initially diagnosed with the illness. In his announcement, Bruni noted that Vatican City has been adhering to social distancing guidelines implemented across Italy, as well as worldwide, in an effort to curb COVID-19's spread.

"On this occasion it is useful to clarify that, as in all institutional situations, the various bodies and departments of the Holy See and the Vatican City State continue only in essential, mandatory and unavoidable activities, clearly adopting, to the maximum extent possible, the appropriate measures already communicated, which include remote work and rostering criteria, in order to safeguard the health of staff," he wrote.

Italy has confirmed more than 124,000 cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday morning, according to the latest figures reported by Johns Hopkins University. At least 15,300 people have died nationwide, while nearly 21,000 have recovered from the virus.