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Pope to stop public audiences after rise in coronavirus cases

by Press Association

Pope Francis is to halt his public general audiences and 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 live-streaming his weekly catechism lessons from his library in the Apostolic Palace, as he did during the Covid-19 lockdown in the spring and summer, the Vatican said.

In addition, Francis's liturgical events over the next few weeks and months - including Christmas - will be attended by limited numbers of faithful although a spokesman said plans could change as the health situation evolves.

The shift nevertheless indicated that the Vatican is moving back into partial lockdown mode along with the rest of Italy as Europe experiences surging Covid-19 infections that are putting pressure on already overburdened healthcare systems.

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 September 2 in a Vatican courtyard with limited numbers of faithful participating.

They were told to wear face masks, and had to reserve tickets online and provide contact information. In announcing the return to live-streamed audiences, the Vatican reported that someone who attended the October 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 face mask when greeting bishops at the end of the encounters, and Vatican protocol officials did not force the clergymen to keep theirs on when they chatted with the pontiff one-on-one.

Francis's decision to eschew the mask drew criticism on social media and concern from within the Vatican.

Aged 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's 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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