Pope makes surprise early morning prayer visit in rainy Rome

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Pope Francis prays beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary on the occasion of Immaculate Conception day, at the Spanish Steps, in Rome, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to the statue early Tuesday after last week the Vatican announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic his annual pilgrimage to the statue in the center of Rome would be cancelled to avoid contagion due to gatherings. (Vatican News via AP)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis on Tuesday made a surprise early morning visit to the Spanish Steps in Rome to pray for people worldwide struggling in the pandemic.

The Vatican last week said that due to social distancing concerns Francis was canceling the traditional Dec. 8 afternoon visit to the square that draws big crowds.

Instead, with rain falling and dawn breaking, Francis popped up in the square at the foot of the Spanish Steps at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT), two hours after the end of Italy’s overnight curfew.

Francis left a bouquet of white roses at the base of a towering column which is topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary, prayed, and less than 15 minutes later, left.

Except possibly for some dog-walkers and other early risers, few people were out and about in downtown Rome at the hour, since Dec. 8, a feast day devoted to Mary, is an official holiday in Italy, as well as at the Vatican.

Francis “turned to her (Mary) in prayer, so that she may keep watch with love over Rome and its inhabitants, entrusting to her all those in this city and the world who are afflicted by the (COVID-19) illness and are discouraged,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

Before heading back to Vatican City, where he resides in a hotel, Francis stopped to pray some more and celebrate Mass in St. Mary Majors Basilica in Rome.

Early in the pandemic, Francis made a similar pop-up visit to a little-frequented church in the heart of downtown Rome to pray, startling the few Romans who were in the area during exceptionally tight lockdown measures.

The early December holiday traditionally marks the start of Christmas shopping in Rome, and thousands of Romans and tourists normally would throng the narrow streets near the Spanish Steps which are lined by elegant stores to catch a glimpse of the pope.

But pandemic travel restrictions have caused tourism to dwindle to a trickle this fall. As Italy battles a second surge of coronavirus, the government is continuing its ordinances against crowding in public that could facilitate transmission of the virus.

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, making a for a few minutes, then left.

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