Nigeria’s Peter Okpaleke To Be Sworn-In As Catholic Cardinal

A file photo of Bishop Peter Okpaleke
A file photo of Bishop Peter Okpaleke

 

The Bishop of Ekwulobia, Peter Okpaleke, is scheduled to be one of 20 new cardinals to be sworn in on Saturday by the Catholic church.

Pope Francis had earlier named Okpaleke as one of the new cardinals – many of whom could one day choose his successor.

It is the eighth consistory since the 85-year-old Pope was elected in 2013, but is being particularly closely watched for signs of the kind of Catholic Church he hopes to leave behind.

The new cardinals include men known for their progressive views and their pastoral work, and they hail from around the world: from Brazil to Nigeria, India, Singapore and East Timor.

After Saturday’s swearing-in at St Peter’s Basilica, they will join a two-day meeting of all cardinals starting Monday.

The gathering was called earlier this year to discuss the pope’s new constitution for the governance of the church — but has only fuelled speculation he is on his way out.

Francis, who has cancelled numerous events in recent months and been forced to use a wheelchair due to knee pain, said last month “the door is open” to stepping down.

If he did follow his predecessor Benedict XVI and resign, a conclave involving all cardinals aged under 80 would be called to choose a successor.

After this weekend, Francis will have chosen around 90 out of the 132 cardinals eligible to elect a new pope, around two-thirds of the total — precisely the percentage needed for any proposed name to pass.

Global choices

The naming of cardinals, normally an annual event, is always scrutinised as an indication of the future direction of the Catholic Church and its priorities for its 1.3 billion faithful.

But Francis’s choices for cardinals do not automatically guarantee that the next pope would be someone reflecting his own priorities, Vatican specialist Bernard Lecomte told AFP.

“We always have the impression there will be continuity, but in reality, history has shown the opposite,” said Lecomte, citing the “balancing” from one pope to the next throughout the 20th century.

Francis’ papacy has been defined by efforts to make the Church more inclusive, transparent and focused on the most vulnerable members of society.

This year the Argentine pontiff completed a major shake-up of the Vatican’s powerful governing body, the Roman Curia, which makes winning new converts a priority.

He has named cardinals who have rejected Church hierarchy and status quo and helped to counter the centuries-long hegemony of Europeans.

Virgilio Do Carmo Da Silva, the archbishop of Dili, will on Saturday become the first cardinal of tiny East Timor, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation in Southeast Asia.

Another new appointment is Robert McElroy, the 68-year-old bishop of San Diego, California, who has supported gay Catholics and criticised moves to deny Communion to US politicians — like President Joe Biden — who support abortion.

Two years ago, the pope made history by creating the first African-American cardinal — Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington.

And Saturday will also see the creation of the youngest cardinal in the world, 48-year-old Italian missionary Giorgio Marengo, who works in Mongolia.

Curia insiders

The group also includes Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, archbishop of Manaus, Brazil.

Three future cardinals already hold positions in the Curia: Arthur Roche of Britain, Lazzaro You Heung-sik of South Korea, and Fernando Vergez Alzaga of Spain.

Lucas Van Looy, the 80-year-old bishop emeritus of Ghent, was nominated as a cardinal but asked to be exempted following criticism of his handling of child sexual abuse by priests in Belgium.

On Saturday, the future cardinals will kneel one by one at the feet of the pontiff, who will place on their heads the quadrangular scarlet cap, or biretta.

The ceremony will be followed by the Vatican’s traditional “courtesy visit,” in which the new cardinals greet the general public.

Bandits Kidnap Another Catholic Priest In Kaduna

A graphical illustration of gunmen.

 

Another priest of the Catholic Church, has been kidnapped by bandits in Kauru local government area of Kaduna State.

The victim, Reverend Father Emmanuel Silas was kidnapped from the parish rectory of Saint Charles Catholic Church, Zambina in Kauru Local Government within the early hours of Monday.

The incident comes less than two weeks after the priest in charge of the Kaduna Polytechnic Catholic community, Reverend Father Vitus Borogo was killed on his farm at Kujama in Chikun Local Government Area of Kaduna State.


Bandits Kill Catholic Priest In Kaduna

Priest Killed By Bandits Buried As Over 700 Colleagues Protest


The police are yet to comment on the development, but the Chancellor of Kafanchan Catholic Diocese , Reverend Father Emmanuel Okolo, confirmed the incident, saying that they were able to know about the incident when the priest did not show up for the early morning mass on Monday.

He, however, solicits the prayers for the immediate and safe release of the Kidnapped priest, saying that the Catholic Community will use all available legal means to ensure the release of the kidnapped Reverend Father.

In a similar vein, gunmen have kidnapped two Catholic priests in Edo State.

Police authorities in the state confirmed the incident which occurred on Saturday night around Ehor and Iruekpen communities along the Benin-Auchi Expressway.

In a statement on Sunday, the Police Public Relations Officer in Edo, Chidi Nwabuzor, identified the victims as Reverend Father Udo Peter of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Uromi, and Reverend Father Philemon Oboh of St. Joseph Retreat Centre, Ugboha in Esan South East Local Government Area (LGA) of the state.


READ ALSOKidnappers Kill Catholic Priest, Hunter In Edo


Barely a week before the incident, Channels Television reported the abduction and subsequent killing of Reverend Father Christopher Odia of St. Michael Catholic Church, lkhabigbo in Etsako LGA of Edo State.

He was abducted from his rectory last Sunday while he was on his way to conduct a mass for worshippers at the parish.

But the clergyman was later killed by his abductors out of frustration during a fire exchange with security operatives who were on a rescue mission.


READ ALSO: Abducted Catholic Priests, Two Others Regain Freedom After One Month In Captivity


Nwabuzor, while narrating the latest incident, said one Reverend Father Amos Abhulimen of St. Dominic Catholic Church, Ugboha informed the police of the abduction of his colleagues.

According to him, the Commissioner of Police Edo, Abutu Yaro, has dispatched security operatives to the area with a view to rescuing the clergymen and arresting the kidnappers.

Bandits Kill Catholic Priest In Kaduna

Reverend Father Vitus Borogo

 

A Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Kaduna, Reverend Father Vitus Borogo, has been killed by bandits in Chikun Local Government Area of the state.

The victim until his murder was the Chaplain of the Catholic Community of the Kaduna State Polytechnic, and the Chairman of the Nigerian Catholic Diocesan Priests Association (NCDPA), Kaduna State Chapter.

Although the police authorities have yet to confirm the incident or give details about the attack, the Chancellor of Kaduna Catholic Archdiocese, Reverend Father Christian Okewu, said in a statement, that Father Borogo was killed on Saturday at the Nigerian Prison Farm in Kujama along the Kaduna-Kachia Road in Chikun LGA.

READ ALSO: Insecurity: Akeredolu Orders All Public, Private Institutions To Install CCTV

In reaction to the incident, the Catholic Archbishop of Kaduna Archdiocese, Most Reverend Matthew Ndagoso, condoled with the immediate family, the NFCS Family of Kaduna Polytechnic, and the entire Kaduna Polytechnic Community. He assured them of his fraternal closeness and prayers.

Details of the funeral arrangement for the murdered priest will be announced as soon as possible, according to the Archbishop.

He called for prayers for the peaceful repose of his soul and consolation for his bereaved family.

Reverend Father Borogo is the second Catholic priest that has died at the hands of bandits in Chikun LGA of Kaduna in the past two months.

In May, another priest, Father Joseph Bako, had died in the custody of bandits who abducted him on March 8, from his pastoral residence of Saint John’s Catholic Church, Kudenda also in Chikun LGA.

The Archdiocese of Kaduna said Father Bako, who died eight weeks after his abduction, was ill before the bandits took him and held him without giving him access to his medication and proper medical care.

Mbaka Disowns Adoration Ground Protest, Pledges Obedience To Bishop Onaga

File photo of Fr. Ejike Mbaka. 

 

Enugu-based Catholic priest and Spiritual Director of the Adoration Ministry, Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka has distanced himself from Sunday’s protests by his followers at the Adoration ground.

Bishop Callistus Onaga of Enugu Catholic Diocese had imposed a ban on the Adoration Ministry, a situation that forced demonstrators to take to the state’s capital city, calling for the bishop’s removal.

But in a statement on Monday, claiming he never knew about the protest and did not authorise it. The cleric explained that rather, he received in obedience the ban on his Adoration ministry and had since shut the ministry till further notice.

READ ALSO: Enugu Catholic Diocese Bars Faithful From Attending Mbaka’s Adoration Ministry

Mbaka asked his members who had resorted “to attacking or insulting my dear Bishop,” to desist from it, stating that the Bishop is the shepherd of the church in the Diocese and must be respected.

“My attention has been drawn to activities that took place in the Adoration ground on Sunday. I am not in any way involved in such activity,” the statement partly read.

“We received with obedience the directive issued by my Bishop, His Excellency, Most Rev CVV Onaga on June 17, 2022

“May I, therefore, appeal to the faithful, in particular members of Adoration Ministry Enugu, Nigeria, to remain calm and united with the body of Christ in the Diocese and also refrain from any measure of violence either in action or by abusive utterances.

“Those who take to attacking or insulting my dear Bishop should desist from such.

“The Bishop is the Shepherd of the Church in the Diocese and we remain his flock who in every way and at all times is expected to be respectful, obedient, and willing to respond favourably to his apostolic directives.

“May I also remind you that all Adoration activities have been suspended till further notice. Adoration Ministry is ever submissive to the mother Church. I enjoin all adorers to know this and remain constantly in prayers for the manifestation of the will of God in the life of the Ministry.”

Catholic Church Announces Date For Mass Burial Of Owo Massacre Victims

Scene of the St Francis Catholic Church, Owo where scores of worshippers were killed in Ondo State on June 5, 2022.

 

The victims of St Francis Catholic Church Owo, Ondo State who were gruesomely murdered on June 5 will be buried this week, Channels Television gathered on Tuesday.

Gunmen suspected to be terrorists had stormed the church nine days ago, killing over 40 worshippers, while injuring several others. The massacre has since been condemned by Nigerians, including President Muhammadu Buhari and many state governors who have called for a probe into the attack.

In a statement, the Catholic Diocese of Ondo said the mass burial for the slain worshippers will hold would hold on Friday, June 17.

The Director of Social Communication of the Diocese of Ondo, Revd. Father Augustine Ikwu told Channels Television in Akure that the mass burial would take place at a new cemetery of the diocese located along Emure-Ile Road in  Owo.

READ ALSO: INEC Promises To Conduct Good Governorship Election In Ekiti

The Diocese and the State government had earlier announced that about 40 people died while several others sustained injuries during the attack on a fateful day.

Some of the injured victims are still receiving treatment at the Federal Medical Centre and the St. Louis Catholic Hospital both in Owo and some other private hospitals in the state.

Although no one has been arrested in connection with the attack, the police authorities said three unexploded improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been recovered from the scene of the Owo church attack.

Force Police Relations Officer, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, noted that police investigators have also recovered “pellets of expended AK-47 ammunition” from the scene.

Condemning the tragic incident, the Inspector-General of Police said full-scale investigations into the incident have been ordered with a view to bringing to book the perpetrators of the gruesome killings.

Meanwhile, governors across the six states in the South-west region have declared three days of mourning for victims of the terror attack at Saint Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State.

The governors made the decision in a virtual meeting held on Friday to review the state of insecurity in the region.

According to a communique issued after the meeting, the governors condemned the June 5 attack in Owo which claimed at least 40 lives, and scores hospitalised.

“The Governors agreed to declare a 3-day mourning period in memory of the victims of the 5th June 2022 terror attack on St Francis Catholic, Owaluwa Street, Owo, Ondo State, starting from Monday, 13th June, to Wednesday, 15th, June 2022 to symbolise our collective loss across all South Western States in Nigeria,” the communique read in part.

“The meeting agreed that all the Governors should direct the flying of Flags at Half Mast in all public buildings, facilitates and official residences across all the States in the South West in honour of the victims of the Owo terror attack.”

APGA Condemns Owo Terrorist Attack

A file photo of the emblem of APGA.

 

The All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) has roundly condemned the recent terrorist attack on a Catholic Church at Owo in Ondo State.

In a statement released yesterday and signed by the National Publicity Secretary of APGA, Barrister Tex Okechukwu, the party wondered why any right-thinking persons should embark on such a heinous and inhuman act against innocent worshippers.


READ ALSO: PHOTOS: Akeredolu Visits Scene Of Owo Church Attack, Survivors In Hospitals


It expressed angst at the unfortunate development and charged security agencies to unmask those behind the attack and deal decisively with them to serve as a deterrent to those planning to polarize this country through the fanning of the embers of hate, ethno-religious inclinations and divisiveness.

“This kind of unprovoked attack should not be allowed to recur as any recurrence would have weight consequences on the fragile peace and unity of our nation,” the statement added.

APGA sympathized with the families of the victims of the attack, including the government and people of Ondo State, and prayed God to console them.

US Archbishop Bans Pelosi From Communion Over Abortion Rights Support

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds her weekly news conference in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on April 29, 2022 in Washington, DC.  Chip Somodevilla/ AFP

 

 

 

The archbishop of San Francisco told US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that she is barred from receiving communion over her support for abortion rights, the archdiocese said in a letter released Friday. 

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said he in the letter that he had previously asked Pelosi to “publicly repudiate your advocacy for abortion ‘rights’ or else refrain from referring to your Catholic faith in public and receiving Holy Communion” — or face the consequence of being denied access to the rite.

“As you have not publicly repudiated your position on abortion, and continue to refer to your Catholic faith in justifying your position and to receive Holy Communion, that time has now come,” the archbishop said.

“I am hereby notifying you that you are not to present yourself for Holy Communion and, should you do so, you are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, until such time as you publicly repudiate your advocacy for the legitimacy of abortion and confess and receive absolution of this grave sin in the sacrament of Penance,” he added.

Pelosi, a lifelong Catholic from California, said she would work to pass a law to confirm women’s continued right to abortions after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed access to the procedure nationwide.

Pelosi’s office made no immediate comment to AFP after the archbishop’s letter was made public.

Communion — the rite in which the faithful ritually consume bread and wine blessed by a priest — is a central rite in the Catholic Church.

Suspected Bandits Attack Taraba Community, Blow Up Church

Members of St John’s Catholic Church in Mutum Biyu, Taraba watch the impact of the explosion on the church.

 

Explosives suspected to have been planted by bandits have exploded at the St. John’s Catholic Church in Mutum Biyu, the headquarters of Gassol Local Government Area of Taraba State.

This is coming barely 24 hours after suspected terrorists killed three persons in Wuro Bokki Community in the same local government area.

Confirmed the incident to Channels Television on Tuesday, the Principal of the College, Reverend Father Emmanuel Vershima, stated that the explosion occurred at about 7:30pm on Sunday.

He explained that he also heard sporadic gunshots within Mutum Biyu town, 15 minutes after the explosion at the church.

Image of the destroyed church building.

 

”We are very lucky and can heave a sigh of relief,” the clergyman said. “This is because the youths and some students held a programme in the chapel which doubles as the school hall and left the premises shortly before the explosion took place.

READ ALSO: Kano Govt Revokes Licences Of Private Schools

”We are shocked that such could happen at a religious ground, despite all the moves for peace to reign in the state. All I want to do is call for a thorough investigation to unravel those behind the attack and that the perpetrators be brought to book.”

Image of the destroyed church building.

 

The Taraba State Police Command’s Public Relations Officer, Abdullahi Usman, who also confirmed the incident, said the attack was carried out by kidnappers.

“What happened was that some kidnappers came to abduct the owner of a filling station in the town,” he narrated. “Unfortunately for them, they could not achieve their mission and in the process of running to escape being trapped by youths and the vigilante group, they started shooting sporadically.

“In the process, they threw up an explosive into the church to cause fear to enable them to escape. The explosion blew up and caused some damages to the building.”

Usman revealed that a discrete investigation into the incident has already been launched and assured residents that the attackers would be arrested.

He also called on the people to remain calm and continue their lawful businesses, saying all hands were on deck to prevent a repeat of such an incident.

Probe Uncovers At Least 3,000 Paedophiles In French Catholic Church Since 1950

Chairman of the independent commission of inquiry into the sexual abuse of minors committed within the Catholic Church, Jean-Marc Sauve, poses during a photo session in Paris on September 28, 2021. JOEL SAGET / AFP

 

Some 3,000 paedophiles have operated inside the French Catholic Church since 1950, the head of an independent commission investigating the scandal told AFP days ahead of the release of its report.

The commission’s research uncovered between 2,900 and 3,200 paedophile priests or other members of the church, said Jean-Marc Sauve, adding that it was “a minimum estimate”.

The commission’s report is due to be released on Tuesday after two and a half years of research based on church, court and police archives, as well as interviews with witnesses.

Sauve, a senior French civil servant, said the report, which runs to 2,500 pages, had attempted to quantify both the number of offenders and the number of victims.

It also looked into “the mechanisms, notably institutional and cultural ones” within the Church which allowed paedophiles to remain and will offer 45 proposals.

The independent commission was set up in 2018 by the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) in response to a number of scandals that shook the Church in France and worldwide.

Its formation also came after Pope Francis passed a landmark measure obliging those who know about sex abuse in the Catholic Church to report it to their superiors.

Made up of 22 legal professionals, doctors, historians, sociologists and theologians, its brief was to investigate allegations of child sex abuse by clerics dating back to the 1950s.

When it began its work it called for witness statements and set up a telephone hotline, then reported receiving thousands of messages in the months that followed.

‘A bomb’

The report will be delivered to the CEF and released at a press conference Tuesday to which representatives of victims’ associations are invited.

“It will be an explosion,” one member of the commission told AFP on condition of anonymity.”

“It will have the effect of a bomb”, added Olivier Savignac, of the victim’s association Parler et Revivre.

Bishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of the CEF, said he feared that the report would unveil “significant and frightening figures”, during a meeting with parishioners from his diocese.

A message from Church authorities to priests and parishes for weekend masses warned that the report’s publication would be “a harsh and serious moment”, which calls for “an attitude of truth and compassion”.

Sauve had said in November that the handling of suspected paedophile cases “in the past has often been faulty”.

He said it was “extremely serious that there could have been some institutions and some communities, in small number, where systemic abuses could have been committed”.

Top US Catholic Priest Quits Over Misconduct Claims

A friar holds a rosary in St.Peter’s Square on July 6, 2021 while Pope Francis is hospitalized at the Policlinico A. Gemelli Hospital in Rome after a scheduled surgery for a symptomatic diverticular stenosis of the colon The scheduled surgery was done on July 4. – Pope Francis, 84, on July 6, 2021, had breakfast and got up to walk, two days after undergoing surgery for an inflamed large colon, the Vatican announced. (Photo by Isabella BONOTTO / AFP)

 

 

A senior administrator in the US Catholic Church has resigned amid allegations that he frequented gay bars and used gay hookup app Grindr, according to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The organization released a statement on Tuesday acknowledging accusations of misconduct against its general secretary, Jeffrey Burrill, by Catholic outlet The Pillar.

“In order to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the conference, Monsignor Burrill has resigned, effective immediately,” the conference said.

Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy and the Church opposes sexual activity outside of straight marriage.

The conference said it “takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and will pursue all appropriate steps to address them.”

Shortly after Burrill’s resignation became public, The Pillar published an investigation analyzing cell phone data that located him at known gay venues.

Data from his phone also suggested regular use of Grindr between 2018 and 2020.

Burrill, who is from a diocese in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, has overseen the response to several scandals in the Church, including sexual abuse allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

A 450-page Vatican report published in 2020 concluded that numerous sexual assault complaints against McCarrick were not taken seriously by Church authorities, who did not open an investigation.

After several allegations became public, including incidents involving minors, the Vatican defrocked the cardinal in 2019.

The accusations against Burrill do not amount to violations of the law but Pillar editor-in-chief JD Flynn set out what the publication saw as the public interest in the investigation.

“Church leaders have acknowledged in recent years that inconsistency between the actual behavior of these clerical leaders and the expectation of clerical celibacy can contribute to an unhealthy and damaging culture of secrecy and cover-up in the Church,” Flynn said in a statement.

Vatican Says Catholic Church Can’t Bless Same-Sex Unions

Ahiara Bishop Resigns Over Ethnic Objections
PHOTO USED TO ILLUSTRATE THE STORY: This handout photo taken on February 18, 2018, and released by the Vatican press office Osservatore Romano shows Pope Francis at the Casa Divin Maestro in Ariccia, at the start of his week of spiritual retreat. OSSERVATORE ROMANO / AFP

 

The Vatican on Monday said the Catholic Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions despite their “positive elements”, saying it was impossible for God to “bless sin”.

The powerful Vatican office responsible for defending church doctrine, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), issued a response to the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?”

“Negative,” read the CDF’s response, signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the doctrinal office that was first set up in 1542 to hear heresy cases.

READ ALSO: Fans Barred From Tokyo Olympics Torch Relay Start

Blessings are not allowed, wrote the CDF, because what is to be blessed needs to be “objectively and positively ordered to receive and express the grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord”.

“For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex,” it wrote.

The CDF wrote that such relationships might have positive elements to be valued, but that did not make them “legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the creator’s plan”.

The office wrote that while God “never ceases to bless each of His pilgrim children in this world… he does not and cannot bless sin”.

 

 – Denies discrimination –

The CDF denied that its declaration was “a form of unjust discrimination”. Instead, it said it was a “reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them”.

The Church considers that marriage is exclusively the union of a man and woman.

Early in his papacy, Pope Francis took an unprecedented welcoming tone towards the LGBT community, making the now-famous “Who am I to judge?” remark about gay people trying to live a Christian life.

In a documentary released last October, Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions, although the Vatican later qualified that the comments were highly edited and excluded one saying he was opposed to same-sex marriage.

AFP

Pope Francis Says Lebanon Faces ‘Extreme Danger’ After Blast

This photo taken and released on April 13, 2020, by the Vatican Media shows Pope Francis delivering his message during a private Angelus prayer live broadcast from the library of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on Easter Monday, during the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. Handout / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP.

 

Pope Francis used a first public audience in six months Wednesday to warn that Lebanon faces “extreme danger that threatens the very existence of the country” following last month’s massive explosion.

The leader of the Catholic Church focused on the disaster-hit country almost a month after the huge blast in the Beirut harbour ripped through the city, killing more than 180 people and wounding at least 6,500.

“Lebanon cannot be abandoned to its solitude,” the pope said at the limited audience with the public, meetings that had been suspended due to the coronavirus crisis.

“A month after the tragedy… my thoughts are still with dear Lebanon and its particularly hard-pressed population,” Francis said, holding a Lebanese flag brought to the audience by a young priest.

He called for a universal day of prayer and fasting on Friday, saying that he would send the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to Lebanon on the day.

“Faced with the repeated tragedies that each of the inhabitants of this land knows, we realise the extreme danger that threatens the very existence of this country,” he said.

– ‘It’s beautiful!’ –

The pontiff held his first audience in a closed courtyard of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, with a maximum of 500 faithful.

Jorge Bergoglio — Francis’ birth name — last hosted an audience on February 26, as the grip of Covid-19 closed around Italy.

Back then the Argentinian pope, who is fond of direct contact, shook hands with dozens of faithful and hugged a few children massed in the front row of the audience of some 12,000 people.

But there were no hugs on Wednesday, with Francis simply exchanging a few words with those present, all wearing face masks.

There was a rush to meet the pope by attendees as he entered the courtyard.

Always without a facemask, the pope kept his distance before succumbing slightly by the end of the ceremony, when he blessed three married couples, shook hands with some cardinals and took a Lebanese priest by the arm.

So far, the coronavirus has killed more than 35,000 people in Italy since it was first detected, according to the latest official statistics.

“After all these months, we are resuming our face-to-face and not screen-to-screen meetings,” a smiling pope told the audience.

“It’s beautiful!” he laughed.

“The current epidemic has demonstrated our interdependence, we are all linked,” the pontiff continued, saying “this is why we must emerge better from the crisis.”

“We must do it together, not alone,” he said.

– ‘Message of freedom’ –

Turning to Lebanon — a country Francis called “a message of freedom and an example of pluralism in both the East and the West” — he called on religious and political leaders to work together in its reconstruction.

“We cannot allow this heritage to be lost,” Francis said.

The pope also pressed the international community to help “Lebanon emerge from a serious crisis without being involved in regional tensions.”

Visibly moved by the pope’s message, Maronite priest George Breidi, a student at a Catholic university in Rome thanked the pontiff for his support.

The Maronite clergyman, whose Eastern Catholic Church is based in Beirut, also thanked the pope for “saying that we cannot continue to live like this in Lebanon”.

AFP