Pope in first trip outside Rome since virus lockdown

Pope Francis makes his first trip Saturday since the Vatican’s coronavirus lockdown, though it will be a solitary affair for the crowd-loving Argentine who has had to learn how to be close to the faithful from a distance.

Francis will journey to Assisi, the birthplace of his namesake saint, where he will sign his new encyclical — a document laying out the pope’s views on key issues — called “Fratelli tutti”, on the importance of fraternity, particularly in these Covid-19 times.

The Vatican has said it will be a private visit to reduce health risks — both to Catholics who usually throng the streets on such occasions, holding aloft babies to be kissed, and for the elderly pontiff himself.

As the virus, which has killed over one million people globally, began to spread around the world earlier this year, Francis reached out through a live-streamed mass, performed alone on Saint Peter’s Square.

“Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities”, he said in the historic March address, describing the coronavirus “tempest” as having put everyone “in the same boat”, as heavy rain fell around him.

That, and his lonely walk through the deserted streets of Rome to pray at two churches for the end of the pandemic, captured his isolation, but were also seen by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as signs of solidarity and hope. (AFP | Andrea Bernardi with Ella Ide in Rome)