VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis left the Vatican to make a surprise visit Sunday to two churches in Rome to pray for the end of the coronavirus pandemic — a move that came even as Italian health authorities insisted people stay home as much as possible to limit contagion in the heart of Europe's outbreak.
Francis who recently had a cold, headed first to a Rome basilica, St. Mary Major, where he often stops to give thanks after returning from trips abroad. There he prayed before an icon of the Virgin Mary dedicated to the “salvation of the Roman people.”
“With his prayer, the Holy Father has invoked the end of the pandemic that is striking Italy and the world, implored for healing for the many sick, recalled the so many victims of these days and asked that their family members and friends find consolation and comfort,”' Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
After that, the 83-year-old pope left the basilica, near Rome's central train station, and headed toward central Piazza Venezia, strolling along a brief stretch of Via del Corso, a noted shopping street for Romans. He then ducked into a church that most tourists pass by, St. Marcel on the Corso.
The church keeps a "miraculous crucifix that in 1522 was carried in procession through the neighborhoods of the city so that the Great Plague of Rome ended,'' Bruni said.
Some 90 minutes after he left Vatican City, Francis was back.
In ordinary times, the Via del Corso would be thronged with Sunday strollers and window-shoppers, but very few Romans are on the streets these days. A national lock-down allows people to go out to work, to purchase essentials like food or medicine or to take care of those in need.
A sole cyclist was pedaling down the street when Francis, in his white robes and with a security detail walking behind, approached the St. Marcel church.
The pope's prayerful foray across town came just hours after the Holy See announced that the Vatican's Holy Week ceremonies will go ahead without the public Italy tries to contain its coronavirus outbreak.
Bruni said “as far as Holy Week liturgical celebrations are concerned, I can specify that all are confirmed.”
But Bruni added: “As things stand, understudy are the ways they would be carried out and who would participate while respecting the security measures put in place to avoid spread of the coronavirus.” He added that in any case, faithful will be able to follow the ceremonies on TV, radio and through online media.
Vatican media added "until April 12 the General Audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website.”
Easter Sunday is April 12 this year, when normally tens of thousands of faithful would fill St. Peter's Square for an outdoor papal Mass, listen to the pope's speech and receive his blessing, delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.
Although Easter itself wasn't specified in the Vatican statements, it appeared likely restrictions on large gatherings might well continue in Italy. The Italian government has said it would decide whether measures, now in effect through April 3, would need extending or tightening.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday on April 5, with tradition calling for an outdoor Mass in the square also on that day, when faithful clutch palm fronds and olive branches.
COVID-19 for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, like the elderly and the fragile, it can cause more severe illness.
At 83 with one lung partially compromised, Francis is both. After he was seen sniffling and coughing and sounded congested a couple of weeks ago, the Vatican said he had a cold.
Italy’s virus cases surged again Sunday, with 3,590 more in a 24-hour period for a total of 24,747 cases. Deaths also jumped, with 368 more, bringing the country's overall death toll to 1,809. The additional infections reported Sunday represented the biggest day-to-day increase so far in Italy.
With St. Peter's Square closed to the public, and one case of infection reported by the Vatican recently, Francis on Sunday delivered his traditional weekly commentary and blessing from the Apostolic Library instead of from a window overlooking the vast square.
Francis praised Catholic priests for “creativity” in tending to their flocks, especially in the region of Lombardy, northern Italy, where thousands of people have been hospitalized or are in quarantine. He said their efforts demonstrated there are “a thousand ways to be near” to the faithful, if not physically.
Some churches in Italy are being allowed to stay open for individual prayer, but all public Masses are forbidden during Italy's lockdown to discourage crowding.
Luca Bruno in Giussano, Italy, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Iain Sullivan in Madrid, contributed to this report.
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