Pope goes on Roman walkabout, prays for end to pandemic

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Selfies sent by parishioners lie on the benches of the Robbiano church as Masses for the faithful have been suspended following Italy's coronavirus emergency, in Giussano, northern Italy, Sunday, March 15, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis left the Vatican to make a surprise visit Sunday to two churches in Rome to pray for the end of the coronavirus pandemic — a move that came even as Italian health authorities insisted people stay home as much as possible to limit contagion in the heart of Europe's outbreak.

Francis who recently had a cold, headed first to a Rome basilica, St. Mary Major, where he often stops to give thanks after returning from trips abroad. There he prayed before an icon of the Virgin Mary dedicated to the “salvation of the Roman people.”

“With his prayer, the Holy Father has invoked the end of the pandemic that is striking Italy and the world, implored for healing for the many sick, recalled the so many victims of these days and asked that their family members and friends find consolation and comfort,”' Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

After that, the 83-year-old pope left the basilica, near Rome's central train station, and headed toward central Piazza Venezia, strolling along a brief stretch of Via del Corso, a noted shopping street for Romans. He then ducked into a church that most tourists pass by, St. Marcel on the Corso.

The church keeps a "miraculous crucifix that in 1522 was carried in procession through the neighborhoods of the city so that the Great Plague of Rome ended,'' Bruni said.

Some 90 minutes after he left Vatican City, Francis was back.

In ordinary times, the Via del Corso would be thronged with Sunday strollers and window-shoppers, but very few Romans are on the streets these days. A national lock-down allows people to go out to work, to purchase essentials like food or medicine or to take care of those in need.

A sole cyclist was pedaling down the street when Francis, in his white robes and with a security detail walking behind, approached the St. Marcel church.