Pope Francis defied Italian government advice to stay indoors and today walked to church through Rome’s deserted streets to pray for the end of coronavirus.
The Catholic leader had earlier delivered a blessing from his balcony window above an eerily empty St Peter’s Square, which has been closed to worshippers as part of the country’s sweeping lockdown.
Francis then left the Vatican to visit two churches in the Italian capital, first praying in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore before strolling down the usually bustling Via del Corso.
He headed to the St Marcello al Corso, which poignantly hosts a crucifix carried in a 1522 procession in Rome when the city was stricken with plague.
Flanked by his security detail, the 83-year-old pope, who has been nursing a cold, decided to walk through the streets ‘as if on a pilgrimage,’ Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
His walkabout came just hours after it was announced that the Vatican’s Holy Week ceremonies will go ahead behind closed doors so not to accelerate Italy’s sky-high infection rate which soared to 24,747 today.
The country is battling the second largest outbreak outside of mainland China, and is mourning the deaths of 1,809 virus victims.
Everyday life has been tipped upside-down for millions of Italians – schools have been shut, towns have been sealed off, sports games canned and mass gatherings banned.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement that ‘as far as Holy Week liturgical celebrations are concerned, I can specify that all are confirmed.’
But Bruni added: ‘As things stand, under study are the ways they would be carried out and who would participate while respecting the security measures put in place to avoid spread of the coronavirus.’
He added that faithful will be able to follow the ceremonies on TV, radio and through online media.
Streaming sermons has already been implemented, and before delivering his blessing from the balcony today, Francis was filmed doing prayers safe inside the Vatican’s private library.
Vatican media added that ‘until April 12 the General Audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website.’
April 12 is Easter Sunday, when normally tens of thousands of faithful would fill St Peter’s Square for an outdoor papal Mass, listen to the pope’s speech and receive his blessing, delivered from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.
Although Easter itself was not specified in the Vatican statements, it appeared likely restrictions on large gatherings might well continue in Italy.
The Italian government has said it would decide whether measures, now in effect through April 3, would need extending or tightening.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday on April 5, with tradition calling for an outdoor Mass in the square also on that day, when faithful clutch palm fronds and olive branches.
Italy, the center of Europe’s conoravirus outbreak is under severe lockdown, with the public restricted from leaving their homes except to buy food, go to work or a few other urgent reasons, and must stay at least one meter (about three feet) away from each other.
The disease for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, like the elderly and the fragile, it can cause more severe illness.
At 83 with one lung partially compromised, Francis is among the most vulnerable to the infection’s potentially deadly affects. The Vatican says he has had a cold in recent weeks.
Italy’s virus cases surged again Sunday, with 3,590 more cases in a 24-hour period for a total of 24,747.
Deaths also jumped, with 368 additional patients, bringing the overall death toll to 1,809. The additional infections reported Sunday represented the biggest day-to-day increase so far in Italy.
With St Peter’s Square closed to the public, and one case of infection reported by the Vatican recently, Francis on Sunday delivered his traditional weekly commentary and blessing from the Apostolic Library instead of from a window overlooking the vast square.
Francis praised priests for ‘creativity’ in tending to their flocks, especially in the region of Lombardy, northern Italy, where thousands have been hospitalized or are in quarantine.
He said their efforts demonstrated there are ‘a thousand ways to be near’ to the faithful, if not physically.
Some churches in Italy are being allowed to stay open for individual prayer, but all public Masses are forbidden during Italy’s lockdown to discourage crowding.
As infections in Italy continue to balloon, Milan’s Lombardy region governor Attilio Fontana said the situation in areas around the country’s financial hub was only ‘getting worse’.
‘We are close to the point where we will no longer be able to resuscitate people because we will be out of intensive care unit beds,’ Fontana told Italy’s Sky TG24 channel.
‘We need those machines (doctors) use to ventilate lungs, artificial respirators that unfortunately we cannot find,’ Fontana said.
The Lombardy region has recorded 1,218 of the Italian deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 over the past three weeks – more than the rest of Europe combined.
The region of 10 million – slightly smaller but more economically productive than neighbouring Switzerland to the north – also has 13,272 reported infections and 767 people in intensive care.
Milan mayor Beppe Sala said he had managed to secure shipments of surgical masks from China to help cover a growing shortage.
‘Milan has always had excellent relations with the main Chinese cities and I made a few phone calls over the past few days in search of masks,’ the Milan mayor said.
‘The first shipment arrived (Friday) and we will now distribute them to doctors, to our staff.’
The Italian airforce played Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma as they put on an incredible air display to lift the spirits of their nation during the coronavirus lockdown.
In a performance which the airforce reportedly does on a regular basis, a set of jet fighters used coloured smoke to paint the Italian flag while the emotional song played.
The clip was shared by the Aeronautica Militare who said: ‘Unity and teamwork have always been the principles on which our Armed Force is based and, at this moment more than ever, are fundamental.’
Footage of the event has gone viral on social media, with even Donald Trump sharing the video, declaring ‘the United States love Italy.’
Many online praised the use of the song which has lyrics such as ‘watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope’ – saying it was fitting for the current circumstances.
Coronavirus deaths in Italy rose by 368 overnight to bring the total to 1,809, while 24,747 people have tested positive for the deadly bug.
Italian officials confirmed the jump today, as the national lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte earlier this month rumbles on another week.
The shocking development comes as chilling footage shows the obituary of one local newspaper expanding from a single page to 10.
It comes as thousands of Italians in Rome, Milan, and Naples applauded healthcare workers from their balconies and windows yesterday as they raised spirits with a flashmob during the draconian coronavirus lockdown.
Families and neighbours also sang and crashed pots and pans together for the performers in cities across the country, organised through messaging service WhatsApp for noon yesterday.
Rejoicing spectators exclaimed patriotic and uplifting phrases including ‘Viva l’Italia’ (Long live Italy) and ‘Vinceremo’ (we will win). The few cars on the street joined the chorus by blaring their horns.
Many also waved banners decorated with rainbows and the phrase ‘Andra tutto benne’ (everything will go well).
The heartwarming sight follows Friday’s flashmob, where Italians sang in chorus for a rousing rendition of the national anthem Fratelli d’Italia. Currently 60million people are in lockdown in the Mediterranean country.
‘I received a circulating message, forwarded to me by a friend… which is basically encouraging Italians to participate in a kind of flashmob on Friday 13 at 6pm,’ said Rome resident Yemi Adeyeye.
‘My street came alive at that time. It was a euphoric moment.’
Jessica Phelan, 34, who has lived in Rome for two years, said neighbours were waving and saying ciao to each other, and called out ‘a domani’ (see you tomorrow) afterwards.
‘I think it shows that people will continue to seek community,’ she said, ‘even if they can’t socialise.
‘It’s a way to say we’re all in it together’.