Both Pope Francis and his predecessor, former pope Benedict XVI, have received the coronavirus vaccine, the Vatican said on Thursday.
“I can confirm that as part of the Vatican City State vaccination programme to date, the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine has been administered to Pope Francis and the Pope Emeritus,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Iraq in March, the Vatican said Monday, the first ever by a pontiff and which will include a trip to Mosul.
The 83-year-old has long spoken of his desire to visit the Middle Eastern country, although the Vatican said the programme would “take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency”.
Francis will be the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Iraq, where the number of Christians has dropped dramatically over the past two decades.
“He will visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur… the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement, during a trip planned from March 5 to 8, 2021.
There were more than one million Christians in Iraq but just a few hundred thousand are left following sectarian warfare after the 2003 US-led invasion and the Islamic State group’s sweep through a third of the country in 2014.
The pope’s visit to Mosul will be particularly significant, given that it was a former stronghold of the Islamic State group.
Francis was forced to cancel all foreign trips in June after it became clear that coronavirus, which hit Italy in early March, would make travel for the elderly pontiff too dangerous.
He said last year that Iraq was on his list for 2020 trips.
At the time he said he hoped Iraq could “face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers.”.
One of the most influential Vatican cardinals, Angelo Becciu from Italy, resigned his position unexpectedly on Thursday, the Holy See announced without explanation.
“The Holy Father accepted the resignation from the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from the rights connected to the Cardinalate, presented by His Eminence Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu,” a one-line statement late on Thursday said.
After a career as a Vatican emissary, Becciu has worked for the last six years as the Substitute for General Affairs, a role akin as chief of staff which means he sees Pope Francis daily and is one of his most trusted aides.
The 72-year-old was named as a cardinal in summer 2018 and has also had responsibility for the department that oversees beatifications and sainthoods.
His surprise resignation could be a sanction.
He has been linked in the past to an investigation underway within the Vatican over the last year into a property development in the exclusive Chelsea area of London which was paid for with offshore funds and companies.
The process to invest in the scheme to build luxury apartments began in 2014 when Becciu was in the Vatican secretariat, the central bureaucracy of the Holy See.
The Vatican’s police force raided the offices of the secretariat last year to seize financial documents and computers, while five members of staff were suspended.
Becciu defended the purchase at the beginning of the year during an interview.
Pope Francis is being “constantly monitored” for signs of the coronavirus, a top Vatican official said Monday, after the 83-year old pontiff met with a cardinal who later tested positive.
Philippine cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 63, had a private audience with Francis on August 29. He went on to test positive for Covid-19 on his return to Manila on September 10.
“We are being prudent,” Secretary of State Pietro Parolin told ANSA news agency.
“There is no particular alarm (in the Vatican)”, but the health of the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was being “constantly monitored,” he added.
Pope Francis, whose birth name is Jorge Bergoglio, has shown little fear for his own health since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic early this year.
The pope talks to those who visit him at the Apostolic Palace without wearing a face mask. Last week he was spotted wearing one for the first time since the start of the pandemic, but he took it off to chat to the faithful.
Francis shunned however his usual practice of shaking hands and kissing babies, and used hand sanitiser which was handed to him by a personal assistant.
The pope was tested for the coronavirus in March when a prelate living in the same residence as him was found to be positive.
Pope Francis will resume limited public weekly audiences early next month, the Vatican announced Wednesday, six months after the head of the Catholic Church halted the practice because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Wednesday events will be held in a closed courtyard of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, where a maximum of 500 seats will be placed, rather than in St Peter’s Square, a Vatican spokesman told AFP.
Entry into the courtyard will open without reservation two hours before the audience, which will start at 09:30 (0730 GMT), the Vatican official said.
Jorge Bergoglio – the birth name of Francis — last hosted an audience on February 26, as the grip of the COVID-19 disease closed around Italy.
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.
At the time, few were wearing face masks for protection.
Shortly afterwards, the pope cut back his schedule because of a “cold”, raising questions about his health.
So far, the coronavirus has killed more than 35,000 people in Italy since it was first detected, according to the latest official statistics.
The Vatican on Monday said former pope Benedict XVI was not in especially bad health after his biographer told a German newspaper he was “extremely frail”.
Pope emeritus Benedict’s health “is no cause for particular concern, especially regarding a 93-year-old person getting over the most acute phase of a painful illness,” the Vatican press office said citing his personal secretary Georg Gaensewein.
Citing the former pope’s biographer Peter Seewald, Bavarian newspaper the Passauer Neue Presse reported that Benedict is suffering from erysipelas of the face, a virus that causes a facial rash and episodes of severe pain.
“According to Seewald, the pope emeritus is now extremely frail,” the report read. “His thinking and his memory are quick, but his voice is hardly audible at the moment.”
Seewald reportedly visited Benedict in Rome on Saturday to present him with his biography.
“At the meeting the emeritus pope, despite his illness, was optimistic and declared that if his strength increased again he would possibly take up his pen again,” the paper said.
Benedict visited his sick brother Georg in Germany in June, marking his first trip out of Italy since his shock resignation in 2013.
Georg Ratzinger died just two weeks later, aged 96.
The former pontiff, whose original name is Joseph Ratzinger, now lives in a small former monastery inside the Vatican.
He has largely stayed out of the public eye since he became the first pope in 600 years to resign, citing health reasons.
A traditionalist in the Catholic Church, he was replaced by the reformist Pope Francis.
Pope Francis said Sunday he was “very distressed” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pope said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano had on Saturday carried reaction from different countries about Friday’s decision to turn the monument from a museum back into a mosque but without any comment.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say is chipping away at the Muslim-majority country’s secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Koran at Hagia Sophia.
Erdogan’s announcement came after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.
Former pope Benedict XVI travelled from the Vatican to Germany on Thursday to visit his sick brother, officials said, in his first trip abroad since his shock resignation in 2013.
The unexpected trip to the Bavarian city of Regensburg was described as “a private visit” made necessary by the deteriorating health of Benedict’s 96-year-old brother Georg Ratzinger, said Clemens Neck, a spokesman for the Regensburg bishopric.
“It might be the last time the brothers see each other in this world,” Neck told AFP.
The Vatican confirmed the trip and said the only other time 93-year-old Benedict had left the Vatican since his resignation was a visit to the Castel Gandolfo papal palace outside Rome.
It is believed to be his first time back in Germany since 2011.
Benedict, seen as a traditionalist in the Catholic Church, stunned the world when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign, citing health reasons.
Pope Francis stepped up his battle against corruption in the Vatican Monday with a new law aimed at boosting transparency in tenders and cutting costs as a post-coronavirus recession hits.
Convicted mobsters and those guilty of tax fraud are among a list of undesirables now unable to pocket contracts.
The Argentine pontiff was elected in 2013 to put the Vatican’s finances in order, but has met resistance from certain ministries reluctant to relinquish control over funds or shine a light on internal workings.
The law, published Monday, is the result of four years of work and brings the Vatican into line with international standards.
It is “a not insignificant turn of events,” Vatican expert Iacopo Scaramuzzi said on Twitter.
“It puts an end to the firmly established Vatican habit… of entrusting external contracts to relatives and friends of friends,” he added.
The new standards of “transparency, control and competition in the procedures for awarding public contracts” will centralise expenditures, currently very fragmented, under two administrative bodies.
The changes will “significantly reduce the danger of corruption,” Francis said in his written introduction to the law.
While the days of suspected mafia involvement in the Vatican’s finances are long gone, the seat of the Catholic Church has found it difficult to shake off scandals completely.
A recent investigation uncovered possible corruption linked to Vatican real estate investments in London.
As well as excluding people convicted of ties to organised crime groups from bids, the law says the Vatican’s selection for tenders must comply with ethical principles and avoid conflicts of interest.
Giuseppe Pignatone, a leading Italian anti-mafia expert appointed by the Pope in October to head up the Vatican’s court, said the law aimed to achieve “significant savings” through competitive bidding.
“The theme of cutting expenses is very topical and important at this time — unfortunately destined to continue — of serious economic difficulties for the whole world, but also for the Holy See and the Vatican City State,” he said.
The Vatican said Sunday that its traditional Easter week celebrations would be held this year without worshippers due to the coronavirus.
“Because of the current global public health emergency, all the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week will take place without the physical presence of the faithful,” the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household said in a statement.
The office is in charge of coordinating most of Pope Francis’s public schedule and his audiences with heads of state and other dignitaries.
The Vatican also said: “Until April 12, the general audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website.”
According to the latest tally late Saturday, there have been 1,441 deaths in Italy due to COVID-19, and more than 21,000 Italians have tested positive.
Italy is the hardest-hit European country so far in the pandemic.
The Vatican clinic is used by priests, residents and employees — including those now retired — as well as their relatives.
Bruni said the Vatican was getting in touch with all those who had passed through the clinic, as per protocol.
Most of the Vatican’s employees live in the Lazio region, where 44 people have tested positive for the virus.
Pope Francis is suffered from a bad cold but reportedly tested negative for COVID-19.
The 83-year old has a personal doctor and does not visit the medical centre — except for rare trips to greet staff.
– ‘Avoid dissemination’ – The Vatican said on Thursday it was considering changes to Pope Francis’s schedule “to avoid the dissemination” of the new coronavirus.
It did not say whether the Argentinian pontiff would be temporarily kept away from crowds or whether he would stop shaking hands with visitors.
Francis has not been seen in public since announcing during his traditional Sunday prayer before crowds in Saint Peter’s Square that he was skipping an annual spiritual refuge south of Rome because of a cold.
The pontiff has cut down his schedule and has spent most of his time at home, the Saint Martha’s guest house in the Vatican.
“The cold with which the Holy Father was diagnosed is running its due course,” Bruni told journalists Thursday.
Francis lost part of a lung as a young man and suffers from sciatica — a nerve condition that causes pain in his hip.
But he rarely cancels appointments and normally takes extra time to mingle with crowds.
The Vatican is expected to supply staff working in close contact with tourists with masks and gloves.
Like many of the monuments and famous squares in Rome, Saint Peter’s Square and the Museums are largely deserted.
In Rome, priests are discouraging people to exchange the sign of peace and holy water fonts are being emptied.