Despite Age and Lung Condition, Pope Francis Continues to Meet People

The Holy Father has also so far declined to move to more isolated quarters in the Vatican’s apostolic palace, or the papal summer residence of Castel Gandalfo.

Pope Francis at his televised weekly general audience from the apostolic palace, March 25, 2020.
Pope Francis at his televised weekly general audience from the apostolic palace, March 25, 2020. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — As much of the world enters a period of quarantine to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and the elderly are especially advised to isolate and avoid social contact, concerns are growing that Pope Francis is opening himself up to contracting the disease.

According to authoritative sources, the Holy Father has let it be known that he wishes to remain at his residence, the Casa Santa Marta guesthouse behind the Paul VI Hall, despite recommendations that he move to the more isolated apostolic palace, or the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo in the Albano hills 20 miles south of Rome.

Either location would provide the Holy Father with greater seclusion than his current residence of Casa Santa Marta and so lessen the risk of him contracting the coronavirus, or unwittingly passing it on to others.

More of a guesthouse than a residence with its frequent visitors passing through, Casa Santa Marta was chosen by Francis as his residence after his election in 2013 because it brought him into contact with people. “I cannot live alone,” he said at the time. “I must live my life with others.”

The number of guests has no doubt significantly reduced since Italy’s lockdown and risks to the Pope are further mitigated by Masses at the Casa being celebrated without the faithful.

But on Wednesday a person who lives in Casa Santa Marta tested positive for coronavirus and is being treated in an Italian hospital, according to the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero

The report said the person is thought to be a priest who works in the Vatican Secretariat of State, but the Vatican did not comment. 

The Pope is no longer making public appearances except when they are livestreamed from the apostolic palace — a change that visibly frustrated him and which prompted him to say he felt “caged.”

Perhaps partly to counter that restrictiveness, he is continuing to meet people.

On Monday, the Pope officially received four senior curial officials in private audience and on Wednesday presented his weekly general audience in the apostolic palace along with ten others. Last week, he held private audiences on three separate days, receiving a total of 11 people, mostly curial officials. He is also likely to be meeting others privately and informally, and observers are concerned that those meetings, too, probably pose a risk.

Earlier in March, he received a group of French bishops on the ad limina visit, one of whom tested positive with the virus a few days later on returning to his diocese.

And on Tuesday, the Vatican announced that three Vatican staff had tested positive for the virus — an employee in the Vatican’s merchandise department and two Vatican Museums’ staff — bringing the total to four (or five if one includes the priest living in Casa Santa Marta). In Rome, the number of cases had risen to 1,287 by March 24, with 80 deaths in the Lazio region which geographically includes Vatican City State.

But the Pope is also not alone in continuing to work at the Vatican. Despite the Italian government ruling that all but essential services be shut down temporarily, the Vatican announced yesterday that all its dicasteries would continue operating and serving the universally Church but with a reduced staff. Some have been asked to work remotely, but others have had to come into work, partly to prevent documents and archives being removed from the Vatican, according to the AP.

Pope Francis has not been one to fear falling ill or concerned about putting himself in harm’s way, as testified by his risky visits to a number of countries during his pontificate, and his wish to meet people rather than be constrained by bodyguards.

But given he has a lung condition and is someone of advanced age at 83 — COVID-19 often leads to pneumonia and is especially dangerous for those with respiratory problems, and for the elderly in their 80s — a transfer to a more isolated environment until this pandemic passes could be a more prudent move.

The Register asked the Holy See Press Office about possible future transfer plans but it has so far not responded.

This story has been updated.