In a rather defiant gesture, the head of the Catholic church broke the Italian government's advice to stay indoors to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus and instead was spotted walking on the streets flanked by his security guards.
The 83-year-old pope, whose health had raised concerns after he was forced to cancel a planned mass at the St John Lateran Basilica as he was down with cold, was seen walking through the deserted streets 'as if on a pilgrimage,' Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
COVID-19 for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms, while in the elderly and the fragile, it can cause more severe illness. Pope Francis with one lung partially compromised is at severe risk.
Pope Francis decided to go on a walk just hours after it was announced that the Vatican's Holy Week ceremonies will be held on live stream behind closed doors so as not to accelerate Italy's sky-high infection rate which has soared to 28,000 as of March 16.
Francis first went to a Rome basilica, St Mary Major, where he often stops to give thanks after returning from trips abroad. There he prayed before an icon of the Virgin Mary dedicated to the "salvation of the Roman people."
From the basilica, near Rome's central train station, the holy father went to central Piazza Venezia, strolling along the Via del Corso, a noted shopping street for Romans, to go to St. Marcel on the Corso.
The church keeps a "miraculous crucifix that in 1522 was carried in procession through the neighborhoods of the city so that the Great Plague of Rome ended,'' Bruni said.
"With his prayer, the Holy Father has invoked the end of the pandemic that is striking Italy and the world, implored for healing for the many sick, recalled the so many victims of these days and asked that their family members and friends find consolation and comfort,"' Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
As per the communique from Vatican "until April 12 the General Audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website."
Italy is battling the second-largest outbreak outside of mainland China and is mourning the deaths of 2,100 virus victims.