Pope Francis celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in St Peter's Basilica without the public and praised those working through the crisis as heroes.
Looking pensive and sounding subdued, the Pope led the first of several solemn Holy Week ceremonies that will shut out rank-and-file faithful from attending, as Italy's rigid lockdown measures forbid public gatherings.
Normally, tens of thousands of Romans, tourists and pilgrims, clutching olive tree branches or palm fronds, would have flocked to an outdoor Mass led by the pontiff. Instead, Francis celebrated Mass inside St Peter's Basilica, which seemed even more cavernous than usual because it was so empty.
Besides his aides, a few invited prelates, nuns and laypeople were present, sitting solo in the first pews and far apart to reduce the risks of contagion.
Some parish priests in the Italian capital celebrated Mass on rooftops so faithful living nearby could watch from balconies.
In a remark directed to young people, Francis said in his homily: "Dear friends, look at the real heroes who come to light these days: they are not famous, rich and successful people."
Instead, he said, "they are those who are giving themselves in order to serve others. Feel called yourselves to put your lives on the line".