ROME – As Pope Francis faces mounting criticism for not wearing a face mask amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Italy and the rest of Europe, a Vatican official has acknowledged that the pope is at high risk and voiced hope the pontiff would wear a mask more often.

Asked why the pope doesn’t don a facemask during his public audiences despite Italian state protocols requiring citizens to wear one, Father Augusto Zampini noted that Pope Francis is over 80 years old, and “a high risk person if he got COVID.”

Adjunct secretary of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, which oversees the Vatican’s COVID taskforce, Zampini spoke to journalists during an Oct. 27 roundtable on the taskforce’s work.

Pope Francis “has started to use the mask now and I hope he will use it,” Zampini said, adding, “We are working on that.”

However, Zampini suggested that it is not necessary to wear a mask in large spaces with plenty of room for people to keep their distance, saying, “When we are in an open space, we know that it’s different,” and, “if I was going to be photographed 24 hours a day, I might be in trouble as well.”

Ever since he resumed public audiences in September, Francis has come under increased criticism over his decision not to use a face mask at the events, despite the fact that faithful who attend are all required to wear one.

On occasion the pope has been seen wearing a mask inside the car during his arrival to general audiences, taking it off once he stepped outside, which appears to support Zampini’s view that it’s not necessary to wear them in large open spaces.

He has also been seen using hand sanitizer during public audiences but has been criticized for not using it enough and for not keeping sufficient distance from the attendees.

His most recent masked appearance was for an Oct. 20 ecumenical prayer event organized by the Sant’Egidio community, which took place at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli and which was followed by a brief procession to Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio.

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Francis wore a mask for the majority of the event but was criticized the following day when during his Oct. 21 general audience, he walked into the Vatican’s Paul VI hall, where pilgrims were waiting, without a mask on.

Once the event was over, he greeted the bishops in attendance with a handshake, but did not sanitize his hands between greetings. None of the bishops or Vatican officials flanking the pope were wearing masks, although the photographers and Swiss Guards were.

Critics’ main criticism of the pope’s behavior is that it directly contradicts the work of the Vatican’s COVID taskforce and goes against his appeals for solidarity and care of one’s neighbor.

Debate over Francis’s safety protocols comes amid a new wave of infections in Italy, which in the past 24 hours registered 17,000 new cases of COVID-19, down from 21,000 new cases the day before.

A new set of restrictions obliging bars and restaurants to close at 6p.m. and forcing the complete closure of cinemas and gyms was met with protests throughout the county, including Rome, Naples, Turin and Milan.

The Vatican has also been reporting several new cases within its walls, including one inside the pope’s residence and 11 positive cases among the Swiss Guards.

In his comments, Zampini said the Vatican is “very concerned” about the increase in coronavirus cases throughout Italy, and the Vatican and stressed the importance of complying with safety protocols such as social distancing and handwashing.

“We have protocols in place, but still we have cases,” he said, adding, “we have to apply these to ourselves as well.”

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