ROME (AP) — Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic and the development of a vaccine as he presided over an outdoor gathering that signaled a semblance of normalcy returning to the Vatican after a coronavirus lockdown lasting more than two months.
Francis was joined in the Vatican Gardens by a representative sampling of people on the front lines of the emergency: a doctor, a nurse, a hospital chaplain, a pharmacist, a journalist and a civil protection official.
A recovered COVID-19 patient, a person with a relative who died during Italy’s outbreak, and the parents of a baby born during the emergency also were among the pope’s more than 100 guests for the prayer at the grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
They sat spaced far apart, and most wore protective masks; Francis didn’t.
In his prayer, Francis urged Mary to comfort those who lost a love one to the virus, He noted that many virus victims died alone due to hospitals needing to prohibit visitors and that the dead were “buried sometimes in a way that wounds the soul.”
He prayed that doctors and nurses are protected from becoming infected themselves and for God to “illuminate the minds of the men and women of science, so that they find the right solutions to beat this illness.”
He begged world leaders to act wisely and generously to provide social and economic relief for the many workers who have lost jobs. And he called for the “enormous sums of money used to grow and perfect armaments be instead used to fund research to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.”
The prayer service, held on a cool evening in the verdant Vatican Gardens, marked Francis’ biggest gathering to date since the Vatican followed Italy in locking down in March to prevent virus infections.
During the peak of the outbreak, when churches were closed for services, Francis livestreamed his morning Masses each day and presided over Holy Week and Easter services without any faithful present. One of the most stirring moments of the outbreak in Italy was his solitary March 27 nighttime prayer for an end to the pandemic in a rain-slicked and empty St. Peter’s Square.
Italy is now opening back up. Francis is due to celebrate a Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, albeit without members of the public in attendance. He will then go to his studio window to recite his blessing at noon to the crowds below.
The Vatican says police will ensure the faithful gathered in the piazza keep an appropriate distance apart.