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Vatican City, Mar 28  Praying in a desolately empty St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis on Friday likened the coronavirus pandemic to a storm laying bare illusions that people can be self-sufficient and instead leaves “all of us fragile and disoriented” and needing each other’s help and comfort.

Francis stood under a canopy erected on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica while leading a special prayer service as rain soaked the usually crowded cobblestone square. “Open our hearts to hope,” he said in his opening prayer.

“Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts,” he prayed At the end of the hour-long ceremony, he delivered a blessing that is traditionally reserved for the holy days of Christmas and Easter.

Wearing a simple white cassock, Francis climbed the sloping steps of the square by himself until he neared a canopied platform that had been erected to shelter him from the elements, taking the arm of an aide for the last steps.

Francis referred to the 17th-century colonnade that delineates St. Peter’s Square while praying, “From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.”

He compared the viral outbreak plaguing Italy a nd much of the world to an “unexpected, turbulent storm.”

“We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us now called to row together, each of us in need of comforting each other,” the pope said.

Before the pandemic, Francis said, people were rushing through life, “greedy for profit,” undisturbed by “wars and injustices” and not hearing the “cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”

Then, moving to a temporary altar near the basilica’s entrance, he prayed silently and listened to a series of invocations, including one that said, “Save us, O Lord, from illness, epidemics and fear of one’s brother.” Francis also kissed a wooden crucifix that was carried in religious processions in Rome during an early 16th-century plague.

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