Pope Francis on Saturday held his first audience for a group of people as Italy lifted the coronavirus or COVID-19 lockdown, granting it to the health workers from the Italian region that got most affected due to the outbreak.

"You were one of the supporting pillars of the entire country," he told the doctors and nurses who are from the Lombardy region and gathered in the Vatican's frescoed Clementine Hall that had not been used for months due to the novel virus outbreak.

"To those of you here and to your colleagues all across Italy go my esteem and my sincere thanks, and I know very well I am interpreting everyone's sentiments," he said.

Pope Francis Thanks Italian Doctors

Pope Francis
Pope Francis Wikimedia Commons

He thanked the health workers, who wore masks, for being "angels," including by lending their cell phones to dying patients so they could say their final goodbyes to their loved ones. Italy returned to relative normality on June 3 when Italians were allowed to move between regions again. But rules such as social distancing in public and wearing masks are still in effect. Nearly 35,000 people in Italy have died of coronavirus, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, Brazil and Britain.

Nearly 170 of them were doctors and the pope paid special tribute to them in his address on Saturday. At the end the meeting, the pope joked about what he called "the liturgy of the greeting" explaining that they would take a group picture but he would "be obedient to the rules" and greet them from a distance as he passed down the aisle.

Francis' weekly general audience is still being held without the public and streamed over the internet, although he has resumed giving his Sunday message from his window since St. Peter's Square was reopened last month. He has resumed public Masses but with only about 50 people allowed.

(With agency inputs)