ROME – Following a particularly deadly week for Italians inflicted with the COVID-19 coronavirus, Pope Francis Sunday urged Christians everywhere from different confessions to unite in shared moments of prayer, including several he will be leading at the Vatican.

“To the pandemic of the virus we want to respond with the universality of prayer, of compassion, of tenderness. Let us unite. Let us make our closeness felt to the people who are most alone and most deprived,” the pope said March 22.

Speaking at the close of his Sunday Angelus address, which was livestreamed from the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace rather than given publicly in St. Peter’s Square, he urged all Christians “to unite their voices toward heaven.”

To this end, he invited members of all Christian confessions and the heads of Christian Churches and leaders of Christian communities to join in praying the Our Father together at noon on Wednesday, March 25, which on the Catholic calendar marks the Feast of the Annunciation, referring to the biblical scene when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary announcing the birth of Jesus.

“On the day in which many Christians recall the annunciation to the Virgin Mary of the Incarnation of the Word, may the Lord hear the unanimous prayer of all his disciples who are preparing to celebrate the victory of the Risen Christ,” Francis said.

He also announced that on Friday, March 27, at 6:00 p.m. local time he would preside over a prayer service in front of an “empty” St. Peter’s Square, which will include scripture readings and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of the event, he will offer the traditional Urbi et Orbi, offering all who participate a plenary indulgence.

Traditionally only given at Christmas and Easter, the Urbi et Orbi is a blessing that goes out to the people of Rome and to the world, and usually comes packed with an indulgence. The decision to offer the blessing outside of these two major Catholic feast days is, if not unprecedented, extremely rare.

On Friday the Vatican Penitentiary, which handles matters related to conscience, issued two decrees, one of which offered special indulgences for all those afflicted with the COVID-19 coronavirus, medical personnel who care for them, those in quarantine, and all those praying for them.

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The pope’s plea for prayer came the day after the Italian Ministry of Health announced its largest daily death toll yet, with some 793 people dying of the coronavirus in a 24-hour period, raising Italy’s total fatalities to 4,825 as of Saturday night. All in, some 3,000 people in the country died as a result of the coronavirus last week, including the mayor of the city of Piacenza, in the northern Emilia-Romagna region.

The virus has also begun taking a toll on healthcare workers treating infected patients. As of Saturday, the Italian Ministry of Health announced that some 3,654 health workers have contracted the virus, and that so far 18 doctors have died.

In the city of Bergamo, birthplace of St. John XXIII and one of the hardest hit cities with the coronavirus, in recent days loaded some 70 deceased onto trucks to be cremated in other cities, as Bergamo itself is running out of space in its cemetery.

Doctors in neighboring Brescia are calling for a nationwide shutdown, meaning everything would be closed and no one allowed outside. However, in new restrictions announced by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, grocery stores, newspaper stands, pharmacies and tobacco shops will continue to be open, but with limited hours, and provided that customers maintain the required distance of three feet apart.

As he has done in past weeks, Pope Francis after closing his Angelus prayer walked to the window where he usually leads the prayer, stopping to wave briefly at the empty square below.

The call to all Christians to join in prayer could also be seen as an expression of Francis’s ecumenical efforts to promote Christianity unity, which also include a joint prayer for peace with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, traditionally the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, along with leaders of both Israel and Palestine in June 2014.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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