ROME – Celebrating one of the most unusual Holy Thursday Masses of all time, which took place in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis remembered priests living and dead amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying they along with doctors and nurses represent the “saints next door” during the crisis.

“Today, I want to be close to priests, all priests. From the most recently ordained to the pope, we’re all priests. We’re all anointed by the Lord, anointed for the Eucharist, anointed to serve,” the pope said.

Traditionally, Pope Francis celebrates a Chrism Mass, during which holy oils used in sacraments in the upcoming year are blessed, the same day as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The former Mass is typically dedicated to the priesthood and brings together all the priests of the diocese, but it was cancelled due to restrictions on public gatherings due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Noting that there will be a Chrism Mass sometime before the feast of Pentecost, Francis said he still “cannot allow this Mass to pass without recognizing priests, who offer their lives for the Lord.”

He remembered priests who have died in Italy due from the coronavirus, noting that many of them contracted the disease ministering to the sick. These are priests, he said, “who in serving gave their lives.”

The most recent count in Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, says 96 Italian priests have died amid the virus, including one priest from the southern region of Calabria who recently died in New York.

Francis referred to a letter he once received from a Franciscan missionary who, whenever he went to a new mission, visited the cemetery to pray for the priests who died having given their lives in service.

Francis also gave a shout-out to many anonymous priests who serve faithfully, but whose names will never be known. He told the story of one priest who served in the Italian countryside, who not only knew the names of every single person in his town but “also the names of the dogs.”

This is an example of “priestly closeness, they are good priests,” Francis said, adding, “Today I carry you in my heart and I carry you to the altar.”

The pope spoke from inside a nearly deserted St. Peter’s Basilica, where Mass was being livestreamed. In past years he has celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at prisons, migrant welcome centers, and centers for the sick and disabled, symbolically washing the feet of 12 individuals representing groups typically on the margins of society.

This year, however, the Mass was celebrated privately without the faithful due to restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Given protocols regarding social distancing and the absence of faithful, the washing of the feet was skipped.

The traditional reposition of the Blessed Sacrament, given that the basilica will remain empty and there was no crowd of faithful to pray, was also omitted. However, the celebrated image of Maria, Salus Populi Romani (Mary, Health of the Roman People) and the so-called “miraculous crucifix” of the Roman Church of San Marcello, both of which have traditionally been invoked by Romans during times of plague, were present beside the altar, as they were during Francis’s March 27 Urbi et Orbi blessing in St. Peter’s Square.

In addition to Pope Francis and papal Master of Ceremonies Monsignor Guido Marini, several altar servers were present for the Mass, as well as the Archpriest of St. Peter’s, Cardinal Angelo Comastri; Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, delegate of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office that administers the basilica; a 9-member choir; five nuns and four laymen, plus a handful of lectors and Vatican security personnel in plain clothes.

Pope delivered his homily off-the-cuff, saying Jesus offered the Last Supper because “he wants to stay with us in the Eucharist…the Lord himself says that if we don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood, we won’t enter into heaven.”

Jesus is “with us, in us and inside of us,” he said, noting that each person who receives communion is a “tabernacle of the Lord, we carry the Lord with us.”

He also pointed to Jesus’s symbolic washing of the disciples’ feet, saying service is a condition “to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” While Peter initially refuses, Jesus “makes him understand that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we have to let Jesus serve us…the servant of God serves us.”

“This is difficult to understand,” he said, but “If I don’t allow the Lord to serve me (and) forgive me, I won’t enter into the Kingdom of heaven.”

Speaking of the need for forgiveness, Pope Francis recalled the “drama we have lived with priests who have done evil things,” noting that because of the misdeeds of some, many priests cannot leave their homes without being insulted and ridiculed, but they continue their ministry regardless.

“Priest sinners, who together with bishop sinners and the pope sinner, never cease asking for forgiveness, and they never stop forgiving because they understand that they need forgiveness to forgive,” the pope said, stressing that “We are all sinners.”

“Today, all you brother priests, consecrated, are with me on the altar,” he said, urging them not to be “stubborn” like Peter, but to allow God to serve and forgive them.

Forgiveness “is the measure with which we will be judged,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to forgive. Sometimes doubts arrive, but look at Christ, he forgave all. Be courageous, even in risking in order to forgive, to console.”

If a priest cannot give a sacramental absolution in a given moment, “at least console” and “leave the door open, so you can return,” he said.

Pope Francis closed his homily thanking God “for the priesthood of all of us, I thank God for you priests. Jesus loves you. He just asks that you let him wash your feet.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen