Pope ends public audiences, limits numbers at Christmas as virus surges

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Pope Francis shares a word with Monsignor Luis Maria Rodrigo Ewart as he arrives in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican for his weekly general audience on Wednesday. A Vatican official who is a key member of Francis’ COVID-19 response commission, the Rev. Augusto Zampini, acknowledged Tuesday that at age 83 and with part of his lung removed after an illness in his youth, Francis would be at high risk for complications if he were to become infected. Zampini said he hoped Francis would don a mask at least when he greeted people during the general audience. “We are working on that,” he said. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis is halting his public general audiences and will limit participation at Christmas and other upcoming Masses amid a surge of coronavirus cases in Italy and the Vatican, officials said Thursday.

Starting next week, Francis will resume livestreaming his weekly catechism lessons from his library in the Apostolic Palace, as he did during the Vatican’s COVID-19 lockdown during the spring and summer, the Vatican said.

In addition, Francis’ liturgical events over the next few weeks and months — including Christmas — will be attended by only limited numbers of faithful, the Vatican said, though it noted plans could change as the health situation evolves.

Ambassadors to the Vatican were informed recently that Christmas would be essentially a virtual affair for the diplomatic corps this year.

The shift indicated that the Vatican is moving back into partial lockdown mode along with the rest of Italy as Europe experiences surging COVID-19 infections that are putting pressure on already overburdened health care systems.

The Vatican City State has not been spared, with 13 Swiss Guards testing positive this month. All told, the Holy See’s official caseload stands at 27, according to the Johns Hopkins University running tally.

Pope Francis delivers his speech in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican for his weekly general audience on Wednesday. The Vatican is putting an end to Pope Francis’ general audiences with the public amid a surge in coronavirus cases in Italy and a confirmed infection at last week’s encounter. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

After Italy largely tamed the virus with a strict lockdown over the spring and summer, Francis resumed his Wednesday general audiences on Sept. 2 in a Vatican courtyard with limited numbers of faithful participating.

They were told to wear facemasks, and had to reserve tickets online and provide contact information. In announcing the return to livestreamed audiences, the Vatican reported Thursday that someone who attended the Oct. 21 audience tested positive.

In recent weeks, as infections began to rise, Francis refrained from greeting well-wishers at the audiences to prevent people from crowding around him. But he still refused to wear a protective facemask when greeting bishops at the end of the encounters, and Vatican protocol officials didn’t force the clergymen to keep theirs on when they chatted with the pontiff one-on-one.

Francis’ decision to eschew the mask drew criticism on social media and concern from within the Vatican. At age 83 and with part of his lung removed after an illness in his youth, Francis would be at high risk for complications if he were to become infected.

While Francis’ lung condition could explain his reluctance to wear a mask, there has been no comment from the Vatican about why protocol officials allowed other people to get close to him without donning face protection.

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