By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis presided at a scaled-down Holy Thursday Mass in an empty St. Peter's Basilica, praising ordinary doctors, nurses and priests who risk their lives helping coronavirus victims as "the saints next door".
The Mass, which commemorates Jesus' Last Supper with his apostles on the night before he died, usually packs the basilica with up to 10,000 people, including cardinals, bishops, and ordinary faithful.
But because of the coronavirus restrictions, it was said from a secondary altar behind the main one Francis normally uses and attended by only two dozen people, including a few aides, nuns and a scaled-down choir.
They all practiced social distancing - most with a pew to themselves - in Christendom's largest church. The service was broadcast live to the faithful on television and over the internet, which has become the new normal for Easter season services.
Even the traditional foot-washing ritual, which commemorates Jesus' gesture of humility towards his apostles, was eliminated to avoid the possible spread of the virus.
In his improvised homily, Francis praised those, including priests, who he said are risking their lives in helping victims of the coronavirus.
"These days more than 60 (priests) have died here in Italy while taking care of the sick, in hospitals," he said. "Together with the doctors and nurses they are the saints next door.".
More than 18,000 people have died of the coronavirus in Italy, the highest death toll in the world. The number of confirmed cases has topped 143,000, the third highest global tally behind those of the United States and Spain.
More than 100 of the dead in Italy were doctors, according to their federation.
The diplomatic corps would have attended the Mass sitting in the front in full regalia to represent more than 180 countries that have relations with the Vatican.
They instead organised a fund to contribute to a drive by the Italian Bishops Conference to help hospitals in need, according to a statement by the Cypriot and Italian ambassadors.
The pope's scaled-down Holy Week events, which began last Sunday and culminate this Sunday on Easter, were being mirrored around the world in churches where services were also being held without public participation in most countries.
His traditional candlelight Good Friday "Via Crucis" (Way of the Cross) procession around Rome's ancient Colosseum also will not be held for the first time in decades. It will be replaced by a mini-version in the small atrium of St. Peter's Basilica.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)
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