Francis delivers mass, greets bishops without mask despite recent COVID-19 cases at Vatican

A day after donning a face mask for the first time during a liturgical service, Pope Francis was back to his mask-less ways Wednesday despite surging coronavirus infections across Europe and growing criticism of his behaviour and the example he is setting.

Pope, 83 and with part of a lung missing, has only been seen with a mask a handful of times

Pope Francis arrives to lead his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Wednesday. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

A day after donning a face mask for the first time during a liturgical service, Pope Francis was back to his mask-less old ways Wednesday despite surging coronavirus infections across Europe and growing criticism of his behaviour and the example he is setting.

Francis shunned a face mask again during his Wednesday general audience in the Vatican auditorium, and didn't wear one when he greeted a half-dozen mask-less bishops at the end. He shook hands and leaned in to chat privately with each one.

While the clerics wore masks while seated during the audience, all but one took his mask off to speak to the Pope. Only one kept it on, and by the end of his private conversation with Francis, had lowered it under his chin.

Vatican regulations now require face masks to be worn indoors and out where distancing can't be "always guaranteed."

Francis has faced sharp criticism even from his most ardent supporters and incredulousness from some within the Vatican for refusing to wear a mask.

Just this week, the Vatican expert and columnist, the Rev. Thomas Reese, wrote a blistering, tough-love open letter to the Pope offering him six reasons why he should wear a mask and urging like-minded faithful to troll the pope's @Pontifex Twitter feed to shame him into setting a better example.

"You're the boss; you should follow your own rules," Reese wrote. "When the clergy hold themselves above the rules, we call that clericalism, a sin that you have loudly denounced."

At the start of his audience Wednesday, Francis explained to the faithful why he didn't plunge into the crowd as he usually would do. But he said his distance from them was for their own well-being, to prevent crowds from forming around him.

"I'm sorry for this, but it's for your own safety," he said. "Rather than get close to you, shake your hands and greet you, I greet you from far away. But know that I'm close to you with my heart."

Pope Francis lights a candle for peace during an interreligious ceremony in the square outside Rome's City Hall on Tuesday, one of the few times he's been seen with a mask. (Gregoria Borgia/The Associated Press)

He didn't address his decision to forego wearing a mask.

Francis did, however, wear a white face mask throughout an interreligious prayer service in downtown Rome on Tuesday, removing it only to speak. He had previously only been seen wearing one once before as he entered and exited his car in a Vatican courtyard on Sept. 9. Italian law requires masks indoors and out.

Don't be like Trump: U.S. priest

At 83 and with part of a lung removed when he was in his 20s in Argentina due to illness, the Pope would be at high risk for COVID-19 complications. He has urged the faithful to comply with government mandates to protect public health.

Some have speculated the lung issue may make breathing with a mask difficult for him, but the the Vatican hasn't responded to questions about why the Pope wasn't following either their regulations or basic public health measures to prevent COVID-19.

In the past week, 11 Swiss Guards and a resident of the hotel where Francis lives have tested positive. All told, the Vatican City State has had 27 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University running tally.

In Italy, the one-time European epicentre of COVID-19, coronavirus cases are surging, with the Lazio region around Vatican City among the hardest hit. Lazio has more people hospitalized and in intensive care than any other region except Italy's most populous and hardest-hit region, Lombardy.

Inside the Vatican auditorium Wednesday, the crowd wore masks as did the Swiss Guards. But Francis, his two aides and some of the protocol officials didn't.

In his open letter to Francis, which Reese said was a "fraternal correction" from a fellow Jesuit, the American noted that Francis was trained as a scientist, and should know to trust the science on virus protection.

"It is a sin not to wear a mask," Reese wrote, saying the pontiff left himself vulnerable to charges of clericalism, that is, "when clergy hold themselves above the rules."

Reese urged Francis to set a better example to others and avoid being lumped in the same camp as COVID-19 negationists and mask-averse U.S. President Donald Trump, with whom Francis has clashed.

"Do you really want to be in company with a man who builds walls rather than bridges, who demonizes refugees and immigrants, who turns his back to the marginalized?" Reese asked. "I don't think so, but that is where you are as long as, like Trump, you do not wear a mask."

Deal with Beijing on appointing bishops in China renewed

Meanwhile, with respect to matters of the church, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said on Wednesday that a controversial deal with Beijing on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China would be renewed.

The deal, which was first signed two years ago and expires on Thursday, will be renewed for another two years, he said.

The accord with Beijing gives the Pope final say over the appointment of Chinese bishops, and the government allows all of them, including those hailing from a state-backed church, to recognize the pope's authority.

The deal has been highly contested by the U.S. State Department and conservative Catholics, who say the Vatican has sold out to the communist government.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently lobbied officials at the Vatican to end the pact, bringing up the subject of China's human rights abuses. Pompeo didn't meet with Francis as desired, with the Vatican saying the pontiff wouldn't grant audiences to officials during an election campaign.

Vatican officials say the agreement is not perfect but establishes a dialogue with Beijing after decades during which Chinese Catholics faithful to the pope were driven underground.

"As far as the accord is concerned, we are content. There are still many other problems but we never expected the accord to resolve all the problems," said Parolin.

Many believe the accord will eventually lead to diplomatic relations with Beijing, meaning that the Vatican would have to sever ties with Taiwan. Parolin said talk of diplomatic relations was premature.

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