Pope Francis celebrates Palm Sunday without public in St. Peter's

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is celebrating Palm Sunday Mass without the public, since the traditional ceremony in St. Peter’s Square was scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Normally, tens of thousands of Romans, tourists and pilgrims, clutching olive tree branches or palm fronds would have flocked to an outdoor Mass led by the pontiff. Instead, Francis was leading the ceremony inside St. Peter’s Basilica, which seemed even more cavernous than usual because it was so empty.

POPE FRANCIS, IN DESOLATE ST. PETER'S SQUARE, PRAYS FOR END TO CORONAVIRUS

A man walks by Bernini's colonnade in St. Peter's Square during Pope Francis' weekly general audience, streamed by the Vatican television due to restrictions to contain the Covid-19 virus, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Associated Press)

A man walks by Bernini's colonnade in St. Peter's Square during Pope Francis' weekly general audience, streamed by the Vatican television due to restrictions to contain the Covid-19 virus, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Associated Press)

Besides his aides, a few invited prelates, nuns and laypeople were present, sitting solo in the first pews and staggered meters (yards) apart to reduce the risks of contagion.

Looking pensive, Francis blessed braided palms held by the others, then held one himself.

Palm Sunday solemnly opens Holy Week leading up to Easter, which on this year falls on April 12. The Vatican has announced Francis will preside over all the traditional ceremonies without the public in keeping with lockdown measures in Italy and at the Vatican to contain the spread of COVID-19.

A man stands in front of St. Peter's Square and Basilica during Pope Francis' weekly general audience, streamed by the Vatican television due to restrictions to contain the Covid-19 virus, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Associated Press)

A man stands in front of St. Peter's Square and Basilica during Pope Francis' weekly general audience, streamed by the Vatican television due to restrictions to contain the Covid-19 virus, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Associated Press)

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Among the usual events is the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession. This year, instead of the customary candlelit procession at Rome's Colosseum, the Way of the Cross will be presided over by Francis in St. Peter's Square.

The Vatican has said there are seven cases of COVID-19 among the residents or employees of the tiny independent city state.