ROME — Pope Francis celebrated a somber Palm Sunday Mass in a location he goes to most frequently for the funerals of deceased cardinals.

With a staggering coronavirus death toll in Italy, the normally joyous Palm Sunday liturgy was moved both physically and spiritually to another place. Instead of being celebrated under the open sky in St. Peter’s Square, it was moved to the Altar of the Chair inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

As one of four news photographers allowed to photograph the Mass April 5, I witnessed the stark change. Instead of a square filled with faithful from all over the world, this year’s Palm Sunday congregation consisted of 13 people, carefully spaced. There were four nuns, one cardinal, a bishop and the rest were laymen, mostly young.

As I looked at the unusual congregation, I thought of the funerals I have photographed in the same place. Some cardinals die and their funerals draw big crowds, but others die and few turn out for their funeral.

While it was not clear how the congregation was chosen for Palm Sunday, it reminded me of funerals where those in attendance come out of a sense of duty or because they are committed to praying for the souls of the dead.

The entry and exit point for the funerals in the basilica is the Door of the Dead, which is nearly a straight shot from Pope Francis’ residence in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. The door is also the normal entry point for the photographers.

As my colleagues and I arrived through the door on Palm Sunday, we immediately encountered a large hand sanitizer dispenser suitable for a public bathroom. I took some gel to clean my hands and spaced myself from my colleagues as I walked into the basilica. Later I thought of the irony of having sanitizing gel at the entrance instead of holy water.

Before entering the basilica, our Vatican handler had explained that with a nearly empty basilica and live television coverage, everyone needed to shoot with their cameras in the “silenzioso” mode, meaning quiet, single-shot mode. He also explained that we shouldn’t shoot too many frames. The goal was to avoid attention and be invited back for more coverage during Holy Week.

We took our place in the basilica in the usual shooting position for funerals. Only this time instead of being tightly packed in the choir area, we were spaced apart.

All of us had brought masks, but no one chose to wear one. I was about four feet from one colleague and about six feet from another. My closest colleague was coughing and looked unwell. I half-jokingly asked her if she had the coronavirus. She replied that she had allergies that had been going on for a couple months. I was satisfied by her answer and chose to not put on my mask.

Shortly before the Mass began, Vatican workers wearing masks distributed large palm fronds to members of the miniature congregation.

The pope then arrived in a very small procession for the blessing of palms behind the basilica’s main altar. Instead of being ringed by cardinals and bishops as usual for the blessing, only a handful of papal liturgical aides and an otherwise empty basilica encircled the pope.

After sprinkling holy water, the pope was given a braided palm frond that looked as tall as him. Carrying the frond, he walked up the aisle toward the Holy Spirit window, passing the 13 faithful holding equally tall palm fronds.

He arrived in front of the Altar of the Chair, where he normally goes to bless the caskets of deceased cardinals.

Standing behind the altar was the large wooden cross of St. Marcellus, which was carried in Rome in the 1500s during the “Great Plague.” The cross had featured prominently at Pope Francis’s special prayer service and blessing March 27 when he prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

The presence of the cross evoked a feeling of the Good Friday service in St. Peter’s Basilica.

It was as if Holy Week had been advanced, skipping the “Hosanna” of Palm Sunday to move directly into the suffering of Jesus.

The pope’s Palm Sunday celebration was a Mass that reminded one of the funerals, of caskets being carried through the Door of Death and of those dying alone of the coronavirus.

Paul Haring is senior photographer in the CNS Rome Bureau.