ROME — Opening the holiest period on the Christian calendar, Pope Francis on Palm Sunday called on Christians to ask for the grace to be “amazed” by Christ, instead of simply “admiring” him, and to love Christ in the “dismissed and discarded” people of the world.

In a ceremony marked by strict Covid-19 limits on movements and public assemblies in Italy that extend through Easter Sunday, Francis celebrated the Palm Sunday Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica instead of outside in St. Peter’s Square, the traditional stage for a celebration that marks the beginning of Holy Week.

The celebration took place at the Altar of the See of Peter, not the more familiar main altar framed by the Bernini baldacchino.

During his homily, the pope urged Christians to gaze upon Jesus on the cross and let themselves “be amazed … so we can start living again, for the grandeur of life lies not in possessions and promotions, but in realizing that we are loved, and in experiencing the beauty of loving others.”

“In the crucified Jesus, we see God humiliated, the Almighty dismissed and discarded,” he said. “With the grace of amazement, we come to realize that in welcoming the dismissed and discarded, in drawing close to those ill-treated by life, we are loving Jesus. For that is where he is: in the least of our brothers and sisters, in the rejected and discarded.”

Reflecting on the day’s Gospel, that begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a colt, with people shouting Hosanna, and ends with him being buried, after the same people who welcomed him cried, “Crucify him!”

Those who first welcomed Christ and then condemned him to death, Francis said, were “following an idea of the Messiah rather than the Messiah. They admired Jesus, but they did not let themselves be amazed by him. Amazement is not the same as admiration. Admiration can be worldly, since it follows its own tastes and expectation. Amazement, on the other hand, remains open to others and to the newness they bring.”

Today too, the pope said, there are those who admire Jesus for the beautiful things he said and because he changed history with his example, but they don’t allow themselves to be changed by him, refusing to follow in his footsteps.

At the time of his Passion, Francis said, Christ silenced those who had witnessed his miracles and prodigious works, because they risked simply admiring the idea of a God to be adored and feared for his power and might.

“Now it can no longer be so, for at the foot of the cross there can be no mistake: God has revealed himself and reigns only with the disarmed and disarming power of love,” he said.

Jesus endured the humiliation of the cross, the pope reflected, to draw near to humanity and to not “abandon us in our suffering and our death. To redeem us, to save us. Jesus was lifted high on the cross in order to descend to the abyss of our suffering. He experienced our deepest sorrows: failure, loss of everything, betrayal by a friend, even abandonment by God.”

“By experiencing in the flesh our deepest struggles and conflicts, he redeemed and transformed them,” the pontiff said. “His love draws close to our frailty; it touches the very things of which we are most ashamed.”

“Yet now we know that we are not alone: God is at our side in every affliction, in every fear; no evil, no sin will ever have the final word. God triumphs, but the palm of victory passes through the wood of the cross,” Francis said. “For the palm and the cross are inseparable.”

The Palm Sunday Mass opened a busy Holy Week for Pope Francis, which will include the Chrism Mass on Thursday, Good Friday service, leading the recitation of the Way of the Cross also on Friday, and then the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday celebrations.

Due to COVID-19, the ceremonies will have limited attendance, and in some cases the traditional setting will be changed. The Good Friday Way of the Cross, which traditionally has been staged in the Roman Colosseum since the era of St. Paul VI in the 1960s, will take place in St. Peter’s Square, as was the case last year.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, on Thursday, which Pope Francis usually celebrates at either a local prison or a shelter for migrants, won’t be led by the pontiff this year, but instead by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma