Pope Francis has led Palm Sunday services in an almost empty St. Peter’s Basilica because of coronavirus restrictions for the second consecutive year and says the devil is taking advantage of the pandemic.

In pre-COVID times, Palm Sunday, which marks the start of Holy Week and leads to Easter, tens of thousands of people would pack Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square holding olive branches and intricately woven palm fronds in an outdoor ceremony.

Instead, only about 120 members of the faithful participated in Sunday’s Mass, joining the 84-year-old Pope and about 30 cardinals in a secondary wing of the huge basilica.

“Last year we were shocked. This year we are more under pressure and the economic crisis has become heavy,” Francis said in his traditional Sunday noon address after the Mass.

Italy is in the middle of another national lockdown, which is due to end after Easter.

On Wednesday, the Pope ordered cardinals and other clerics to take pay cuts to save the jobs of other employees.

“The devil is taking advantage of the crisis to sow distrust, desperation and discord,” he said, adding that the pandemic had brought physical, psychological and spiritual suffering.

Since he was elected in 2013, Francis has made clear he believes the devil to be real, saying in a 2018 document that it was mistaken to consider him a myth.

Nearly everyone who took part in the Mass, except the Pope and the choir, wore masks.

Palm Sunday commemorates the day the Christian gospels say Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was hailed by the people, only to be crucified five days later.

Devil taking advantage of pandemic: Pope
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