Pope Francis ignored the lockdown of Italy amid the country’s severe coronavirus outbreak, and shocked two churches with a special visit to soothe fears and pray for the end of the disease spreading across the planet.
The Vatican said the pope’s trip included a brief stroll Sunday on a main Rome street to pray for the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pope did a stretch of the street “as of on a pilgrimage,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
Francis prayed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then went to a church which had a crucifix carried in a 1522 procession in Rome when the city was stricken with plague.
Italian health officials demanded that people stay home as much as possible to battle the country’s epidemic.
Italy has been under severe lockdown, with the public restricted from leaving their homes except to buy food, go to work or a few other urgent reasons, and when outside must stay at least about three feet away from each other.
The disease for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness.
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 priests for “creativity” in tending to their flocks, especially in the region of Lombardy, northern Italy, where thousands are hospitalized or 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 were being allowed to stay open for individual prayer, but all public Masses were forbidden during lockdown to discourage crowding.
Francis didn’t cite the Rev. Giuseppe Corbari, pastor of San Robbiano church in the town of Giussano, six miles from Milan, but he well could have.
Corbari printed all the selfies he received from faithful and attached them to the church pews, offering a vivid reminder of the powerful sense of community among Catholics.
Francis did single out for praise the Milan archbishop, who last week went atop the roof of the city’s iconic Duomo, or cathedral, to pray alone before a statue of the Madonna.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.