Pope Francis is facing criticism for rarely wearing a face covering when meeting people even in indoor settings, with some prominent Catholics saying he should be setting an example as well as protecting his own health.
At a meeting over the weekend between the pope and the Spanish prime minister at the Vatican, neither wore a mask during the public part of the event. Although Pedro Sánchez’s face was covered when he arrived at the Vatican, the two men and their aides were unmasked immediately before and after the private meeting.
Last week, Francis wore a mask during a prayer service in Rome – only the second time he has been seen with a face covering.
The following day, at his weekly general audience in the Vatican auditorium, his face was uncovered. At the end of the audience, the pope greeted a half-dozen maskless bishops, shaking hands and conversing closely with each one.
Earlier this month, Robert Mickens, who has reported on the Vatican for 30 years, tweeted a “very disturbing” picture of the pope without a mask at an indoor gathering “with large number of people, many pulling their masks down to talk to him. And pope kissing the hands of recently ordained priests.”
Vatican regulations stipulate that face coverings should be worn inside and outside where social distancing may be difficult.
Thirteen Swiss Guards, the pope’s 113-strong protection corps, have tested positive for Covid in the past two weeks, along with a guest at Casa Santa Marta, the pope’s residence. In all, there have been 27 cases of coronavirus in Vatican City, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracker.
Francis, who is 83 and has only one lung after the other was removed because of an infection when he was a teenager, would be at risk of serious complications if he contracted the virus.
Last week, Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and journalist, wrote a frank open letter to Francis, saying “you should know better” and setting out six reasons why the pope should wear a mask.
“As a Christian, let alone pope, you have an obligation to be a good example to the rest of the world. You are currently giving bad example,” he wrote.
He added: “You’re the boss; you should follow your own rules. When the clergy hold themselves above the rules, we call that clericalism, a sin that you have loudly denounced.”
He added: “Do you really want to be like Trump?”
Reese appealed to supporters of the pope “to give you a bad time until you regularly wear a mask”, leaving messages on Twitter and writing letters to the Vatican.
Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of the pope, said Francis’s mask-wearing was “evolving”.
“He’s clearly trying to strike a balance. He wants to remain open and accessible, and he is keeping social distance. Everyone is trying to find their own balance, but I know he’s been less responsible than some would like him to be.”
Ivereigh visited Francis at the Vatican in September, an occasion when neither man wore a mask, “but they took my temperature, they took a lot of precautions”.
The pope was in “remarkably good shape – full of life”, he said.