Pope cancels general audiences as COVID cases rise in Italy

Pope cancels general audiences as COVID cases rise in Italy

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, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb in Italy and the government rolls out tighter restrictions, the Vatican is also taking steps to stop the spread, including the suspension again of all public papal events.

ROME – As the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb in Italy and the government rolls out tighter restrictions, the Vatican is also taking steps to stop the spread, including the suspension again of all public papal events.

On Thursday the Vatican announced that after someone attending the pope’s Oct. 28 general audience in the Paul VI hall tested positive for COVID-19, future general audiences are suspended and will be livestreamed from the library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace, as it was during Italy’s 3-month lockdown in the spring.

Nothing was said about the pope’s weekly Sunday Angelus address, which takes place in St. Peter’s Square, where faithful are better able to spread out.

The cancellation of the papal general audiences comes as Italy is fighting to contain rising numbers of COVID-19 without imposing another national quarantine. On Wednesday, Italy registered a record number of new cases hitting just shy of 25,000, with 205 COVID-related deaths.

Among those infected is the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

An Oct. 28 statement from the Italian bishops said Bassetti is being continually monitored, and is “living this moment with faith, courage and hope.” Contact tracing has already begun to determine where he contracted the virus.

Cancellation of the pope’s general audiences also comes after weeks of pressure on Francis over his decision not to wear a face mask at public events. He has on occasion used hand sanitizer and has been seen wearing a face mask in the car during his arrival to audiences, taking it off as soon as he stepped outside.

In this week’s audience, the pope refrained from going down to greet pilgrims in order to prevent large crowds clumping together, however, he was seen shaking hands and speaking with several priests and bishops, without wearing a mask.

The Vatican also announced Wednesday that “for the coming months,” all papal liturgies will be celebrated privately, with a limited number of faithful present, and will be livestreamed, allowing viewers to follow through television or social media.

Upcoming papal liturgies include the pope’s All Souls Day Mass; a special Mass for the cardinals and bishops who have died over the previous year; his Nov. 28 consistory for the creation of new cardinals, and his Christmas liturgies.

Plans for All Souls Day, which is celebrated annually Nov. 2 and honors all those who have died, have already been made.

While typically the pope would mark that day by visiting one of Rome’s cemeteries and delivering an off-the-cuff homily commemorating the death, this year he will celebrate a private Mass at the Vatican’s Teutonic cemetery without faithful present.

At the end, Francis will stop for a brief moment of prayer inside the cemetery before making his way to the Vatican grottos, where deceased popes are buried.

On the morning of Nov. 5, he will offer Mass for deceased cardinals and bishops inside St. Peter’s Basilica with a “very limited” number of faithful in attendance in compliance with healthcare norms.

Traditionally, papal events for the holiday season include a vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, a morning Mass Christmas Day, an Angelus address the day after Christmas, the praying of Vespers on New Year’s Eve, Mass on New Year’s Day, and Mass on the Epiphany.

Whether any of these liturgies will take place as usual or celebrated privately and livestreamed depends largely on the curve of the coronavirus.

Francis usually also celebrates a public Mass inside the Sistine Chapel on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the end of the Christmas season, and during which he baptizes newborn infants.

So far the Italian bishops have offered no indication of whether public liturgies will again be suspended, meaning that for the moment, Catholics still have access to the most important elements of their faith: Mass and the sacraments.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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