Pope Francis celebrates Palm Sunday Mass behind closed doors in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Sunday during the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. Credit: Alberto Pizzoli | AP

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis celebrated 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.

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

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

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Palm Sunday solemnly opens Holy Week leading up to Easter, which 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, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

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.