Pope Francis was the sole celebrant at Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the commencement of Holy Week, and the service took place without a congregation, which the Vatican press office said was a historic first for the Roman Catholic Church.
The mass and Pope Francis' homily were livestreamed from the near-empty basilica. Only the pope's aides and a handful of invited religious and laypeople were present. The invitees sat in the front pews of St. Peter's and practiced social distancing. The male choir and organist also practiced social distancing.
In his homily, the pope asked worshippers to devote themselves to service in this time of COVID-19.
"The tragedy we are experiencing summons us to take seriously the things that are serious," Francis said, "and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others."
"May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others," said the pope.
Palm Sunday Mass is traditionally celebrated by the pope and dozens of concelebrants before a congregation of tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square. It marks the beginning of the most important period of the liturgical calendar, culminating next week with Easter Sunday.
Italy's strict lockdown has precluded worshippers attending mass. In Rome, parish priests took to rooftops to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass in view of housebound residents, according to The Associated Press.