Pope Francis prostrated himself on the floor of an empty St. Peter's Basilica on Friday to pray at a "Passion of the Lord" service commemorating Jesus' last hours of life and his crucifixion, an event scaled down by coronavirus restrictions.

The Good Friday service is one of the rare times when the pope does not deliver a homily, leaving it to Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household.

Cantalamessa said the pandemic, which has killed nearly 19,000 people in Italy, should be a spur for people to appreciate what really matters in life.

"Let us not allow so much pain, so many deaths, and so much heroic engagement on the part of health workers to have been in vain. Returning to the way things were is the 'recession' we should fear the most," he said.

The service is usually attended by cardinals, bishops and some 10,000 faithful.

But coronavirus conditions meant it was attended by only about two dozen people, including papal aides reading from scriptures and a smaller than usual choir.

Pope Francis is helped get back up after lying down in prayer prior to celebrate Good Friday Mass 

In another change from the usual ritual dictated by the coronavirus outbreak, only the pope kissed a crucifix at the end of the service. Usually it is also kissed by every cardinal,archbishop and bishop in the church.

The global death toll from the pandemic hit 100,000 on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

Cantalamessa said the pandemic "has abruptly roused us from the greatest danger individuals and humanity have always been susceptible to: the delusion of omnipotence".

"It took merely the smallest and most formless element of nature, a virus, to remind us that we are mortal, that military power and technology are not sufficient to save us," he said.

On Friday night, the pope was leading a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession on the basilica's outdoor steps in an empty St. Peter's Square.

It will be the first time the procession is not being held at Rome's Colosseum since the modern-day tradition was re-introduced by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

The Vatican has been closed to visitors for a month and the 83-year-old pontiff - renowned for breaking stuffy customs and mingling with the people - has complained of feeling "caged".

"We have to respond to our confinement with all our creativity," Francis said in an interview published by several Catholic newspapers this week. "We can either get depressed and alienated... or we can get creative."

On an eerie Good Friday in Jerusalem, a handful of Franciscan friars - some wearing facemasks - commemorated Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection along aVia Dolorosa in lockdown and empty of pilgrims.

They walked the Stations of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the centrepiece of Christian celebrations of Easter, where, in a sparsely attended service, a call earlier went out for prayers for victims of the coronavirus.


Listen to News at One's report on an Easter like no other: Messages from faith leaders


In 2012 the Vatican launched the Pope's Twitter account.  The move was spearheaded by Monsignor Paul Tighe, who was secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication at that time.

Ordained in 2016, Bishop Tighe who is a native of Co Meath, could see the benefit of the Pope using Twitter to reach out to people.

The account now has one of the biggest followings in the World and the Vatican has since extended its social media reach to other platforms like Instagram.

The Catholic Church isn't alone in its use of social media. Beyond the collective gatherings of masses and other services, most faiths have been using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to extend their reach to followers. 

Wariness of church leaders towards social media and the internet appears to have dissolved over time, and those who have embraced communication online are seeing its benefit in the current pandemic as the physical limitations imposed by Covid-19 have meant that religions and faiths have had to adapt.

Holy week for Christian religions and the Passover for the Jewish religion are significant communal events. 

Both coincided this week and the two religions have had to alter the means by which they celebrate with their communities.

Mass at the Vatican on Thursday

Radio, Television and the Internet have facilitated the airing of masses for Holy Week. Among the services that will be streamed over the weekend will be Easter Sunday mass from Christchurch Cathedral.

It will be attended by just three people – the Archbishop Reverend Michael Jackson, the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne and the Dean’s Vicar. There will be no choir.

RTÉ will broadcast a series of services over the weekend, including Easter Sunday Mass from the Dominican Convent of St Jacques in Paris on RTÉ One television and RTÉ Radio 1 Extra (10am-11am). Translation and commentary are by Fr Thomas McCarthy OP. It will be followed by Pope Francis' Easter message.

Restrictions in numbers also mean it’s unlikely that Christchurch will join other Christian denominations in ringing its bells on Sunday. There’s no automated service at the Cathedral, which means its infamous bell ringers are required, but it’s an activity that does not lend itself to social distancing.

Bell ringing will take place across the country at noon. It follows an invitation to Christian congregations from the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, to sound their church bells as a sign of solidarity and hope. 

Archbishop Eamon Martin says they should ring out as a call to joy, despite the difficult times that people are going through. 

A similar invite was made on St Patrick’s day, when people used the novelty of cancelled parades to create videos of their own at home.

Since then the virtual world become a bigger part of people’s lives. Keep an eye out for the Easter bells hashtags on Sunday. They may even result in a few tik-tok creations.

Religious improvisation

Panama's Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa blessed his country from the air this week

The pope's virtual prayers are just the starkest example of religious improvisation in the age of social distancing and confinement.

Others abound worldwide - from the Archbishop of Panama blessing his tiny Central American nation from the air in a helicopter to the faithful in Spain blasting religious music from their balconies during Holy Week.

The scale of the unfolding tragedy has seen a New York City cathedral replace rows of wooden seats with hospital beds in case of overcrowding in surrounding emergency wards.

The powerful Catholic Church in the Philippines is urging the faithful not to kiss the cross and its Orthodox counterpart in Greece is planning to hold mass behind closed doors for its Easter on 19 April.

Westminster Abbey in London is following the technological trend by releasing Easter podcasts for the faithful of the Anglican Church.

Prince Charles - who was briefly quarantined last month after testing positive for the virus - recorded a reading of the Gospel for Easter Sunday.

And priests at France's Roman Catholic shrine in the southwestern town of Lourdes began relaying nine consecutive days of prayers on Sunday by Facebook Live and YouTube.

"Since the pilgrims can no longer come to us, we invite ourselves into their homes," Sanctuary of Lourdes rector Olivier Ribadeau Dumas said.

Additional reporting: Ailbhe Conneely