ROME – On the same day Italy surpassed China in the number of fatalities related to the COVID-19 coronavirus, Pope Francis joined the Italian bishops in calling for a nationwide rosary to pray for an end to the outbreak set for 9:00 p.m. Rome time, 4:00 p.m. on the East Coast of the US, offering special prayers for families and the elderly.

In a March 19 video message marking both the Feast of St. Joseph and the day of prayer the Italian bishops’ conference set aside for the end of the coronavirus, Francis asked the Virgin Mary to “beg the Lord so that he frees the world from every form of pandemic.”

As part of their appeal, the bishops’ conference asked that Catholics throughout Italy join in praying the rosary at 9:00 p.m., placing either a white cloth or a candle in their windows and asking Saint Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family, to intercede for families and the end of the outbreak.

On the same day, the Italian Ministry of Health announced that the country had surpassed China in the number of reported deaths due to the coronavirus, giving Italy the highest death rate in the world.

As of Thursday evening, Italy had 40,035 total cases and 3,405 deaths, with 427 new fatalities between Wednesday and Thursday. However, the number of people cured is also going up, rising to 4,440 on Thursday.

This has been Italy’s deadliest week since the coronavirus was first detected in late January in the country’s northern Lombardy region, with around 1,400 people dying in just four days. Wednesday marked the deadliest day not just for Italy, but globally, with 475 new deaths in a 24-hour period – the highest one-day death toll any nation has seen since the outbreak began.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, mainland China, where the outbreak began, is now in second place with a total of 81,154 reported cases and 3,130 reported deaths. Iran is third with over 18,407 reported cases and around 1,284 reported deaths. However, in those nations many observers suspect that totals may be significantly under-reported.

Spain is currently in fourth place in terms of reported cases, followed by Germany and the United States, respectively. However, much of the data depends on testing, access to which has been a source of contention particularly in the U.S.

In his message, Pope Francis urged people to “help one another to remain firm in what really matters” as the crisis continues.

“How much need we have to be truly consoled, to feel enveloped by his presence of love!” he said, insisting that the test is one’s relationship with others, particularly close relatives, many of whom are confined to the same spaces during Italy’s national quarantine, which was originally projected to end April 3, but which Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Wednesday would be extended.

“Let’s be close to one another, exercising first of all charity, understanding patience and forgiveness,” he said, adding that while it may seem like the walls of one’s house are shrinking, people must expand their hearts.

Francis entrusted families to the care of St. Joseph, noting that he was no stranger to “precariousness and bitterness, and the concern for tomorrow; but he knew how to walk in the darkness of certain moments, always letting himself be guided without reservation by the will of God.”

Pope Francis then asked the saint to protect families and enlighten the country’s authorities to know how best “to care for the people entrusted to their responsibility.”

He also prayed for scientists to have the intelligence needed to find a cure for the virus, and for the doctors, nurses and volunteers, “who are on the front line in caring for the sick, even at the cost of their own safety.”

Turning to the Church, he prayed that pastors would be a source of light and comfort for the suffering.

He also prayed that the elderly would be not be lonely, asking that “no one be left in the desperation of abandonment and discouragement.”

“Comfort those who are fragile, encourage those who waiver, intercede for the poor,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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