Panama archbishop delivers Palm Sunday blessing by helicopter

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Panama's Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa holds the Blessed Sacrament as he sits in a helicopter at Howard Air Force Base in Panama City before overflying the capital on April 5, 2020

Panama's Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa took to the skies to deliver the traditional Catholic Palm Sunday blessing from a helicopter after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of churches across the country.

The Church is abandoning centuries of tradition and refraining from public celebrations of the official start of Holy Week among Christian faithful.

Ulloa celebrated mass at Panama's Howard Air Force base before overflying the city's deserted streets and surrounding countryside. Along with the two priests accompanying him, the archbishop wore a white mask that covered his mouth and nose.

"We are living through an unprecedented event in the history of Christianity, celebrating Holy Week without a congregation in our churches," the archbishop said.

Ulloa carried with him a statue of Santa Maria La Antigua, Panama's patron saint "to protect the country from disease," as many residents placed palm fronds on balconies and at front doors to receive the blessing from the air.

Ulloa dedicated Holy Week to health workers "and so many people who are determined to advance our country at the cost of risking their own lives."

The ceremony is normally performed in churches where priests sprinkle holy water on palm fronds brought by the congregation.

Palm Sunday marks the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Easter Sunday on April 12 celebrates his resurrection from the dead.

After shutting its borders and closing schools Panama decreed a total lockdown. Since last week, men and women are being allowed to leave their homes on alternate days to shop for food and essential medicines. Nobody is allowed out on Sunday.

The Central American country has registered 1,801 infections with 46 deaths from the pandemic, according to the latest figures.