Pope Francis recalled the priests who have lost their lives during the coronavirus crisis as he offered the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a nearly empty St Peter’s Basilica.
“I cannot allow this Mass to pass by without mentioning the priests,” Pope Francis said in his homily on April 9.
“Today all of you brother priests, you are with me on the altar,” the Pope said on Holy Thursday.
Pope Francis explained that he wanted to be close to all the world’s priests at this time, recalling clergy who have recently died of COVID-19.
“Priests who offer their lives for the Lord. Priests who are servants … They are ‘the saints next door,’” he said.
Pope Francis has frequently used the phrase “saints next door”, including in his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, to refer to holy people who live among us unrecognised.
“Today I would like to be close to priests,” the pope said. “All of them — from the newly ordained to the pope, we are all priests. We are anointed, anointed by the Lord, anointed to offer the Eucharist, anointed to serve.”
Holy Week liturgies at the Vatican are taking place without the presence of the public this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Around 12 people were present inside the basilica, in addition to the choir who sang a cappella.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates Christ’s Passover meal with his apostles the night before he died. The Mass most especially recalls the institution of the Eucharist — the sacramental gift to the Church of Christ’s Body and Blood, given in the transformation of bread and wine.
“The reality we live today in this liturgy is the Lord, who wants to remain with us in the Eucharist. And we always become tabernacles of the Lord,” Pope Francis said.
“We bear the Lord with us to the point that he himself tells us that if we do not eat his body and drink his blood, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This mystery of the bread and wine of the Lord with us and in us, within us,” he said.
Often at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the priest washes the feet of some members of the congregation, recalling Christ’s washing of feet at the Last Supper.
This year feet washing was omitted from the liturgy as a precaution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, Pope Francis stressed the significance of this gesture of humility and service in his homily.
“You who are consecrated, I only tell you one thing,” the pope said. “Do not be stubborn, like Peter. Allow your feet to be washed. The Lord is your servant. He is close to you to give you strength, to wash your feet.”
In past years Pope Francis has offered the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at prisons in Rome, washing the feet of the prisoners himself.
The first was in 2013, just after he became pope, when he visited the Casal del Marmo youth detention center. Subsequent Maundy Thursday Masses have been held at the historic Regina Coeli prison, a center for asylum seekers, Rebibbia prison, and Paliano prison.
Pope Francis said in his homily that he had received a letter today from a prison chaplain, who wrote to tell the pope of his plans for Holy Week with the prisoners.
He also recalled an encounter with a bishop, who served in a mission territory and told the pope of his experience visiting a local cemetery to pay homage to the missionary priests who had been buried there before him.
Pope Francis offered Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica with the miraculous crucifix of San Marcello and the Byzantine icon of Mary, Salus Populi Romani, near the altar.
“Today we did not have the Chrism Mass. I hope that we will be able to have it before Pentecost, otherwise we will need to postpone it until next year,” he said.
In the intercessory prayers of the liturgy, Pope Francis prayed for humanity to be freed from the pandemic, and for Catholics to have an increased desire to receive the Eucharist.
“Comfort, afflicted humanity, O Lord with the certainty of your victory over evil: heal the sick, console the poor and free all from epidemics, violence and selfishness,” he said.
“Lord Jesus, every day you renew your gift. Increase in us the hunger for your Body and your Blood, the only source of eternal life,” Pope Francis prayed.