Pope ends public audiences, eyes Christmas as virus surges

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

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.

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.

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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Follow AP’s coronavirus pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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