Francis is far from the only world figure to buck the safety protocols of the pandemic era. But his habits are particularly puzzling, given that he is 83, is 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.
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.
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.
Unlike in March, St. Peter’s Square is open. So is the basilica and museum. Meanwhile Francis, whose papacy was essentially livestream-only in March, has continued to huddle up close with bishops and clerics, while breaking the Vatican’s 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 had some close calls. Thirteen Swiss Guards, members of a group whose duties include protecting the pope, tested positive amid an outbreak that the Vatican now says it has contained. Another positive case was detected in the Santa Marta residence, where Francis lives. The pope also met 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 out of the danger zone.)
But the most visible of Francis’s risks have come in his Wednesday audiences with the public. To gain entrance, 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.
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.
This week, the Vatican announced that 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.”
During at least one public event — an Oct. 20 ceremony in Rome with other religious leaders, including Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Church — Francis did wear his mask. Some speculated he did so because he was on Italian soil and obeying that nation’s laws.
Vatican watchers have a range of theories about Francis’s general aversion. Some think the masks might make it difficult for him to breathe. Others note that 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.
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 the pandemic, suggested that some people in the Vatican were leaning on Francis to more often wear a mask.
“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 that have less relevance to the Vatican, such as cutting down on nightlife. One Vatican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the Holy See’s response, said the city-state was implementing a range of measures 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 — an approach that will probably 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 buses and 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 that Vatican health workers checked in by phone twice a day and that he monitored his own oxygen levels.
He remained isolated for 30 days, until he tested negative, and when he did, he at last had a long walk — leaving the Vatican walls, crossing the Tiber River 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,” he 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.”