Pope cancels main public appearances to stop crowds gathering amid coronavirus

By Philip Pullella
FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis takes part in the penitential procession on Ash Wednesday in Rome

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has cancelled his regular appearances in public to stop crowds gathering to see him and will stream them on the internet from inside the Vatican because of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy.

The Vatican said that on Sunday the pontiff will not address crowds from a window overlooking St. Peter's Square, and will also not hold his general audience from there this Wednesday. Both attract tens of thousands of people.

It will be one of the few times in the past 66 years that a pope will not appear at the window, a ritual deeply engrained in Roman tradition, with some families attending every week.

Both the address and general audience will be held without public participation inside the official papal library in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace and will be viewable on the internet or television, the Vatican said in a statement on Saturday.

Popes began giving regular Sunday blessing from the window in 1954 and have done so nearly every Sunday since, except for when the pontiff is sick or out of Rome.

On May 17, 1981, four days after he nearly died in an assassination attempt, Pope John Paul delivered the blessing with a feeble voice from his bed at Rome's Gemelli hospital.

The Vatican also said that the participation of the faithful at Francis' morning Mass in his residence has been suspended until at least March 15.

The 83-year-old pope cancelled a Lent retreat for the first time in his papacy, but the Vatican has said he is suffering only from a cold that is "without symptoms related to other pathologies".

A Vatican employee tested positive for coronavirus on Friday, the first case in the tiny city-state that is surrounded by Rome.

A Vatican source said the patient had participated in an international conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Life last week in a packed theatre several blocks from the Vatican. Participants at the three-day conference on Artificial Intelligence included top executives of U.S. tech giants Microsoft and IBM.

The death toll from the new coronavirus in Italy, the worst-hit European country, stood at 197 on Friday with more than 4,600 cases, most of them in the north. In Rome province, 49 people have tested positive and one has died.


(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams, Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)