ROME (Reuters) – Pope Francis made an unannounced, pre-dawn visit to a Rome landmark on Tuesday to pray after he was forced to cancel the traditional public ceremony because of the coronavirus.
Popes traditionally go to Rome’s Spanish Steps area on the afternoon of Dec. 8, the Roman Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, to place a wreath of flowers at the base of a 12-metre column bearing a statue of the Madonna.
The event, usually attended by thousands of people lining the streets and considered the start of the Rome Christmas season, was cancelled this year in order to avoid gatherings that could cause contagion.
Francis went at 7 a.m. and placed a basket of white roses at the base of the statue in the rain. During the 15-minute visit he prayed for the city and for all people around the world affected by COVID-19, a Vatican statement said.
Television footage showed the pope wearing a white mask and holding his own umbrella as he prayed.
He then went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he said Mass before returning to the Vatican.
It was the first of a series of Christmas season papal events being curtailed because of the pandemic.
Only a limited number of people will be allowed into St. Peter’s Basilica for papal Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses, which will be broadcast on television and streamed online.
Access to his “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city and the world”) blessing and message will also be restricted.
In October, the pope’s weekly general audiences were moved back indoors without public participation after a period when a limited number of people were allowed to take part.
Italy has seen 60,606 COVID-19 fatalities since its outbreak emerged in February, the second highest toll in Europe after Britain. It has registered 1.74 million cases to date.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)