ROME – With Pope Francis not in attendance, on Thursday the dean of the College of Cardinals celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper in an eerily empty St. Peter’s Basilica, describing this liturgy as a reminder of “how much we have been loved.”

Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re also said that it’s necessary to “go and knock loudly on the door of God, the Father Almighty,” asking for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic; and urged Christians to remember that Holy Thursday demonstrates the highest manifestation of love from God towards humanity, but also the evening of betrayal.

“Around the same table in the Cenacle, God’s love and man’s betrayal faced each other,” he said. “In the story of the boundless love of Christ, who loved us ’till the end,’ there is the bitterness of human disloyalty and betrayal.”

Therefore, this day is also an invitation “to become aware of our own sins; it is a call to put our lives in order a bit and to embark on the path of repentance and renewal to obtain God’s pardon.”

Holy Thursday evening, Re said, “tells us that the Son of God, out of His love for us, gave us not something, but He gave us Himself – His Body and His Blood – that is, the totality of His person, and that, for our redemption, he accepted to suffer the most ignominious death, offering Himself as a victim.”

Thursday’s Mass, the prelate said during his homily, is an opportunity to relieve the evening in which Jesus, surrounded by the apostles, instituted the eucharist and the priesthood.

“The existence of the Eucharist can only be explained because Christ loved us and wanted to be near every one of us forever, even till the end of the world,” Re said. “Only a God could have imagined such a great gift and only an infinite power and love could have brought it about.”

Absent from the celebration – with notice – was Pope Francis, who during the first six years of his pontificate chose to say this Mass at either a prison or a shelter in the Rome are. Last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pontiff changed his plans and led the liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica.

This time around, however, when the Vatican announced the program of this year’s Holy Week, Re was named as celebrant, and the presence of the pontiff was not to be expected, leading to the question of where did Francis celebrate the liturgy known as In Coena Domini, which opens the Easter Triduum and commemorates Jesus’s institution of the Eucharist.

In recent months the pontiff was forced to cancel a series of commitments due to a flare-up of his sciatica. However, in these occasions the Vatican explained that the pope would miss a Mass or an audience due to the nerve pain that radiates through the right leg and the lower back.

During his homily, Re noted that the Church defines the Sacrament of the Eucharist as the “precious gift it has been endowed with,” as it is the gift through which “Christ walks with us as light, as strength, as nourishment, as help in all the days of our history.” In other words, quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharist, he said, “is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”

Much like the Eucharist is the life and center of the life of the Church, it ought to be the same for each Christian as well, Re continued, noting that those who believe in the Eucharist “never feel alone in life,” because they know that in silent and dimly lit churches, “there is someone who knows their name, who knows their story, someone who loves them, who waits for them and who listens willingly.”

However, Re said, the Eucharist is not something “to believe in,” but something that has to be lived, since it’s a call of openness to fraternal love and knowing how to forgive and help those who face challenging situations. The Eucharist is also a call to of commitment to the poor and those who are marginalized, and it’s the light needed to recognize in the face of others that of Christ.

Reflecting on the institution of the Catholic priesthood, Re said that in giving his apostles the ability to forgive sins and to celebrate the Eucharist, Christ “gave humanity an incomparable gift.”

It’s customary for churches to offer the faithful the possibility of remaining throughout the night – or at least for a few hours – to take part in Eucharistic adoration, praying with Christ before his death, much like the apostles were supposed to do when Jesus took them with him to Gethsemane.

“The dramatic situation created by COVID-19, and the unfortunate risk this year of contamination, does not allow this, just as it happened last year,” Re said Thursday. Returning, however, to our homes, we must continue to pray with our thoughts and our hearts filled with gratitude for Jesus Christ, who wanted to remain present among us as our contemporary under the appearances of bread and wine.”

From Christ, the prelate said, it’s possible to draw the strength needed to face the “great challenges” of the pandemic that is killing thousands of people every day.

“We have experienced in a universal way how a small virus can bring the entire world to its knees,” he said. “Until this tragedy subsides, we must have recourse to all the human means that science puts at our disposal, but another irreplaceable step is needed: We must raise a huge chorus of prayer so that the hand of God might come to our aid and end this tragic situation that has worrying consequences in the fields of health, employment, economy, education, and direct relationships with people.”

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