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World Pope Francis, 83 and missing part of one lung, shrugs off covid-19 mask mandates

16:50  30 october  2020
16:50  30 october  2020 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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ROME — Pope Francis indeed has a mask. It’s unadorned and white, just a shade paler than his papal cassock.

Pope Francis et al. walking down the street talking on a cell phone: Pope Francis attends the general audience in the Paul VI hall on Oct. 28. © Alessandro Di Meo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Pope Francis attends the general audience in the Paul VI hall on Oct. 28.

But he almost never wears it.

He goes maskless in public appearances. He goes maskless when hosting visitors. His aversion is deep enough that even guests seem to take the cue: Last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez arrived at the Vatican wearing a mask. But he and his entourage were unmasked when meeting with Francis in the apostolic library.

Francis is far from the only world figure to buck the best safety protocols of the pandemic era. But his habits are particularly puzzling, given that he is 83, missing part of a lung and has talked with clarity about the ravages of the virus. Vatican watchers are worried, and say Francis seems to almost be daring an infection, perhaps while trying to show that his personable style won’t be cowed by the coronavirus’s danger.

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Whatever his motivations — Francis hasn’t said — the maskless pope has become an emblem for the risks facing the Roman Catholic Church, at a time when the virus is spreading rapidly across Europe.

a group of people standing on top of a cutting board with a cake: Pope Francis meets Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his wife at the Vatican on Oct. 24. © Vatican Media/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Pope Francis meets Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his wife at the Vatican on Oct. 24.

The Vatican as a practice follows Italian health decisions, and in the spring, that meant adhering to a rigid lockdown that safeguarded the city-state from major infections. But in this second wave, Italy is trying to avoid a full shutdown and shield its economy. As a result, the Vatican is still keeping things running, as well — even though the tiny nation, home to 600-some people including a cadre of elderly cardinals, has little industry of its own to protect.

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Unlike in March, St. Peter’s Square is open. So is the basilica and museum. Meantime, Francis, whose papacy was essentially livestream-only in March, has continued to huddle up-close with bishops and clerics, while breaking the Vatican’s own rules requiring mask-wearing indoors and out.

“You’re supposed to follow your own rules. You’re the boss. It’s very disappointing he’s not doing it,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst at Religion News Service, who recently wrote a public letter to the pontiff making the case for why he should wear a mask.

“I wrote that because I love him, not because I’m one of his opponents,” Reese said. “It’s tough coming and saying, ‘Pope, you’re wrong. Put on the mask.’ He’s finding it very frustrating, being a pastor under these circumstances, but get real — this is the world we live in now.”

Francis, over the past month, has already had some close calls. Thirteen Swiss Guards, members of a group whose duties include protecting the pope, tested positive amid an outbreak the Vatican now say it has contained. Another positive case was detected in the Santa Marta residence where Francis lives.

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The pope also met on Oct. 5 with an archbishop diplomat who later tested positive. (The Vatican was reportedly informed of the infection 18 days later, after the pope was already out of the danger zone.)

a group of people standing in front of a building: People watch as Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from a window overlooking St. Peter's Square. © Remo Casilli/Reuters People watch as Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from a window overlooking St. Peter's Square.

But the most visible of Francis’s risks have come in his Wednesday audiences with the public. To gain entrance into those audiences, the several hundred visitors have their temperatures checked at the city-state border and are required to wear masks. The pontiff, onstage in a large Vatican hall, keeps well away from the crowd, often offering an apology that he can’t come closer.

“We have to keep our distances,” Francis said at one of the events.

But the pope ignores his own advice with the clerics who join him onstage. After the event, Francis shakes hands with prelates, who line up to receive a few words from him. When approaching the pope, they tend to remove or pull down their masks. On one occasion, Francis kissed the hand of a newly ordained priest.

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On Thursday, the Vatican announced it was suspending the public audiences until further notice, after a crowd member from the Oct. 21 event tested positive. The Vatican said the change was meant to “avoid any possible future risk to the health of the participants.”

At at least one public event — an Oct. 20 ceremony in Rome with other religion leaders, including Bartolomeo I, the ecumenic patriarch of the Orthodox Church — Francis did wear his mask. Some speculated he did so because he was on Italian soil and obeying their laws. Vatican watchers have a range of theories about Francis’s general aversion. Some think the masks might make it difficult for him to breath. Others note he has shrugged off other kinds of risk, and made a name for himself, well before coming pope, with on-the-ground work in the slums of Buenos Aires.

a couple of people dressed in costumes: Pope Francis and Ecumenic Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartolomeo I, wear face masks during an interreligious ceremony for peace in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome on Oct. 20. © Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis and Ecumenic Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartolomeo I, wear face masks during an interreligious ceremony for peace in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome on Oct. 20.

The Vatican press office has not addressed the pope’s reluctance to wear masks or adhere to social distancing norms, and did not respond to a request for comment. The topic is awkward for the clerics who work inside the Vatican, for whom Francis is both a monarch and a revered figure. Earlier this week, the Rev. Augusto Zampini, a member of a Vatican task force addressing the long-term social issues of pandemic, suggested that some people in the Vatican were leaning on Francis to more often wear a mask.

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“Well, we are working on that,” Zampini said on a video call with journalists.

The Vatican established its mask mandate in early October, just as Italy adopted a similar rule. Italy has since taken other steps to cut down on nightlife that have less relevance to the Vatican. One Vatican official, requesting anonymity to speak freely about Holy See’s response, said the city-state was taking a range of steps to reduce the winter health threat, including providing flu shots for residents and employees.

The Vatican has been turning events that would normally have major, international crowds into private or limited gatherings — something that will likely continue into Christmas.

But part of the trouble for the Vatican — and for the pope — is that cases in Rome can easily spill over. For all the cardinals who live full-time inside the Vatican walls, a coterie of assistants and employees come and go, taking busses, eating in Roman restaurants.

“Most people who come to the Vatican are employees who come in and out every day,” the official said. “They live the reality of the city.”

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the Vatican has registered 27 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the people infected in the second wave was Dario Viganò, 58, a vice chancellor inside the Pontifical Academies of Sciences.

Viganò’s case was miserable, but not severe. He said that in late September he came down with a fever and, soon after, was helped into an ambulance by two health workers in protective suits. He didn’t stay at the hospital long, and instead returned to his Vatican apartment, where he lives alone. He had a fever for four or five days. Acquaintances dropped off groceries and cakes. Viganò said Vatican health workers checked in by phone twice a day, and that he monitored his own oxygen levels.

He remained isolated in his apartment for 30 days, until he had tested negative, and, when he did, he at last had a long walk — leaving the Vatican walls, crossing the Tevere, and heading into the center of Rome.

As far as Viganò understands, the infection didn’t spread.

“They reconstructed all the meetings I had up to 10 days before,” Viganò said. “I gave them names, surnames and mobile phones for everybody. They were all contacted and all negative.”

The mystery for him is how he got it. He suspects he contracted it somewhere outside the Vatican, maybe on a bus or in a cafe.

But, he said, “I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said.

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