ROME – Pope Francis, who’s been suffering a cold, made his first virtual appearance Sunday since last week, offering prayers for all those who are facing difficulty due to the coronavirus outbreak and also appealing for relief for civilians in the Syrian city of Idlib currently facing what he called a “humanitarian crisis.”

“I am close in prayer to all people suffering from the current coronavirus epidemic and to all those who care for them,” he said, adding that he “remembered them often” during a week-long Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia, which he participated in from Rome rather than travelling to Ariccia, a small city about 45 minutes from the Vatican where it was held, due to his cold.

“I unite myself to my brother bishops in encouraging faithful to live this difficult moment with the strength of faith, the certainty of hope and the fervor of charity,” he said, adding that the Church’s Lenten season “helps give an evangelical meaning also to this moment of trial.”

He also offered his prayer for COVID-19 victims in a March 6 tweet, saying “I wish to express again my closeness to those who are ill with the #coronavirus and to healthcare workers who are caring for them, as well as to civil authorities and all those involved in assisting patients and in containing the spread of the virus.”

Francis spoke from the library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace, where he recorded this week’s Sunday Angelus instead of giving from a window looking down into St. Peter’s Square, as he usually does, in an effort to avoid drawing large crowds due to the current coronavirus outbreak. The Vatican itself identified its first case of the COVID-19 virus last week.

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In a rare move, the pope’s Angelus address was transmitted to maxi screens in St. Peter’s Square, which, according to a live feed from Vatican News, hosted a sparse crowd who came to watch. The last time a papal public audience was transmitted via livestream was on May 17, 1981, when St. John Paul II offered his Sunday Angelus address from the Gemelli hospital after a failed assassination attempt.

In off-the-cuff remarks at the beginning of his prayer, the pope said this week’s Angelus prayer was “a bit strange, with pope a little bit caged in the apostolic palace,” but said that the decision was a preventative measure to avoid further transmission of the coronavirus.

However, after his address Francis came to the window briefly to greet a small cluster of pilgrims who had gathered in the square to watch his speech.

Pope Francis has been suffering from a cold unrelated to the coronavirus for more than a week, curtailing many of his normal activities. His appearance on the livestream marks his first appearance to the public since last Sunday’s Angelus address in the square.

During last week’s address the pope spoke with a stuffy nose and weak voice, coughing several times during his speech. Today he appeared recovered, standing up and speaking with a clear voice into a microphone.

After offering a brief reflection on the day’s Gospel reading, Francis also gave a special greeting to groups and associations working in Syria, particularly those in the country’s northwest, assisting victims “who have been forced to flee by recent developments of the war.”

“I renew my great apprehension about the inhumane situation of these defenseless people, including many children, who are risking their lives,” he said, insisting that “we must not look away from this humanitarian crisis, but give it priority over any other interest.”

He also offered a shout-out to a group holding a sign reading, “The Forgotten of Idlib,” thanking them “for what you have done” with the gesture.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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