With Holy Week hushed by a pandemic, the pope does social distancing his own way


But as Francis guides the global Catholic Church through the pandemic, he has made it clear he has no interest in full-on papal social distancing.

He continues to hold in-person meetings, sometimes sitting almost knee-to-knee with guests. He eschews wearing a mask, according to photographs and people who have met with him. He has tried to maintain a near-normal daily schedule even as the virus has reached closer — with one positive case discovered in late March in Santa Marta, the residence hall where Francis lives.

Among world leaders during the pandemic era, Francis — 83 years old and missing part of a lung — has faced one of the most delicate calculations about how much to pull back. He has groused in recent weeks about feeling “caged,” and his sociable, off-the-cuff personal style runs counter to the best guidance about how to contain the virus.

Vatican insiders say the pope has indeed reduced his interactions but is also trying to appear present — and not self-concerned — during a dark period of global grief and mounting social tensions. They also suggest he is seeking to set an example to priests around the world of how to find creative ways to stay involved even as their churches are shuttered.

Still, some worry the pontiff is taking too many chances with the virus.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t catch it,” said one Vatican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be publicly critical of the pope. “Can you imagine a conclave in a time of epidemic? It would look like a sci-fi Vatican novel.”

“Quod Deus avertat,” he added, switching to Latin. God forbid.

The Vatican did not respond to questions about how Francis is safeguarding himself. According to Italian media outlets, he has been tested twice for the virus, both times with negative results.

Another official who spoke anonymously said the pope now eats alone. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who has met twice in person with Francis in recent weeks, said that during his visits the two maintained a “a certain distance, but it’s not as if there were particular measures.” He said he washed his hands before the meetings.

“There is a sort of ordinary quality, which is surprising,” Paglia said.

Paglia said Francis had no interest in discussing his own health and was instead preoccupied with planning for the aftermath of the crisis.

“Huge social problems will emerge,” Paglia said, summarizing the pope’s remarks to him. “He believes that the world will entirely change and that the church will have to change, too.”

According to his publicly released schedule, Francis has met with more than 80 people since the beginning of March, when the virus was already spreading across Italy and other places in Europe. On March 9, he hosted a group of French bishops, including one who tested positive for the virus soon after. Francis appears to have since stopped large-scale meetings but has kept up more intimate gatherings: one-on-one sit-downs at a desk, as well as audiences with a dozen or so priests and prelates, each seated roughly six feet apart from one another in a circle, none wearing masks.

At the most recent such event, on Wednesday, one attendee stood at Francis’s side during a concluding blessing.

Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan who examined video and photos of the pope’s recent meetings, said the protocols in place were “terrible.”

“It is crowded, too close,” he said. “They should find stricter ways, also so as to set an example.”

Francis offered some insight into his approach during an interview with the British papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, alluding to a cardinal portrayed in a famed Alessandro Manzoni novel who rode through a plague-stricken village “with the window of his carriage closed to protect himself.”

“This did not go down well with the people,” Francis said in the interview, which was conducted with written questions and recorded audio answers and released Wednesday. “The people of God need their pastor to be close to them, not to overprotect himself. The people of God need their pastors to be self-sacrificing.”

Despite the pope’s refusal to go into a bunker, the virus has nevertheless upended life inside the Vatican, where eight employees have tested positive. The city-state lagged behind Italy in enforcing a stringent lockdown but said on March 24 that it was encouraging remote work “as much as possible.” Critical offices are operating with drastically reduced staffing.

That has led, now, to a subdued Holy Week, one of the most important annual periods in Catholicism. For Francis, the week usually means appearances before enormous crowds in St. Peter’s Square, as well as a Good Friday procession at the Colosseum. Last year, he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a medium-security prison and washed the feet of 12 inmates.

But this year, in a move unprecedented in the modern church, the ceremonies have been closed to the public. Francis will preside over Easter Mass — but pilgrims will see him only via WiFi.

In recent weeks, the pope has already been streaming his daily Masses, which he celebrates in his private chapel in the company of a nun and a priest. Morning after morning, Francis has talked about the virus, praying for health-care workers, for detainees in overcrowded prisons and for the elderly, who he said are “suffering now in a particular way, with greater interior solitude and sometimes great fear.”

Amid the crisis, Francis has also ventured outdoors, in areas where he would normally be pressed by crowds, in moments likely to stand as among the most iconic of his papacy. In mid-March, he walked down Rome’s normally packed Via del Corso, flanked only by a small security team, with a biker coming in the opposite direction, en route to a church housing a crucifix used during the plague era.

On March 27, under an eerie blue light, with ambulance sirens blaring in the background, Francis stood almost alone in St. Peter’s Square to deliver a special blessing. With the coming of the pandemic, he said, a “thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities.”

In parts of the world that have banned large-scale gatherings, Catholics have especially struggled this week with the suspension of public Masses and other liturgical events.

“To go through [Holy Week] without darkening the door of a church, without reciting with a congregation the prayers that we always do, it’s strange,” said John Garvey, president of Catholic University, who was diagnosed in mid-March with covid-19.

The ban on church gatherings has drawn pushback in the United States, with some raising concerns about a violation of religious liberty. Others have said churches have a duty to keep their doors open during a time of severe need.

But Francis, on several occasions, has described a different vision for a church beset by crisis — one in which it transcends strictures with creativity and flexibility. In his latest interview, Francis referenced a phone call from an Italian bishop who had been told by canon lawyers that he couldn’t offer absolution, or forgiveness of sins, to people in covid-19 hospital wards, because he was in the hospital hallway — not in direct contact with those patients.

“What do you think, Father?” the bishop had asked Francis.

“Bishop, fulfill your priestly duty,” Francis recalled saying.

“That doesn’t mean that canon law is not important,” Francis went on to say in the interview. “But the final canon says that the whole of canon law is for the salvation of souls, and that’s what opens the door for us to go out in times of difficulty to bring the consolation of God.”

Bailey reported from Washington.


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