Pope Francis held the first weekly general audience in public after six months on Wednesday, smiling and also chatting with a few of the crowd as they came forward to greet him.

The audience at which the religious leader announced a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon was held in the courtyard of San Damaso of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.

Nearly everyone among the audience of 500 or so wore masks and sat in seats arranged to ensure social distancing. "After so many months, we resume our encounters face to face and not screen to screen, face to face, and this is beautiful," he said to applause at the start of the audience.

Pope Francis Holds First Weekly General Audience

Pope Francis
Pope Francis Wikimedia Commons

Francis clearly enjoyed himself as he walked past guests who had pushed together behind barriers, frequently stopping to converse with them from a distance of one to two meters (yards). The pope last held an audience with a public crowd in early March. After that, the coronavirus pandemic forced him to hold virtual audiences transmitted from the official papal library over television or the internet, an experience he described as akin to being "caged".

He blessed children from a distance as he passed on the way to a dais to make his address. Francis appeared to be energized by the crowd - even though it was a far cry from the tens of thousands that can be held in St. Peter's Square, where outdoor audiences are usually held.

Francis kissed a Lebanese flag handed to him by Lebanese priest Georges Breidi and bowed his head to say a silent prayer for the country, still reeling from last month's deadly port blast and rising sectarian tensions.

At the end of the audience, he invited the priest to the front to hold up the flag as the pope made an appeal for peace and dialogue in Lebanon. He announced that Friday, Sept. 4 would be a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon and that he was sending his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin - the number two in the Vatican hierarchy - to Beirut on that day to represent him.

He invited members of other religions to take part. "Lebanon cannot be abandoned to itself," Francis said, asking politicians, religious leaders and the international community to commit themselves with "sincerity and transparency" to reconstruct the country.

(With agency inputs)