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Pope sports face mask for first time in public

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Pope Francis was seen on Wednesday wearing a face mask for the first time since the start of the pandemic but took it off to chat to the faithful.

The pontiff — known for a fondness for close personal contact — quickly removed the mask as he emerged from a car carrying him to one of his traditional general audiences.

The audience was only the second in the past six months to be held in the presence of the public after the coronavirus crisis forced the Vatican to exclude the public and stream the weekly event from his private library.

But Francis shunned his usual practice of shaking hands and kissing babies as some 500 faithful filled a courtyard at the Apostolic Palace inside the Vatican.

Crowds thronged behind a barrier and some even lowered their masks to greet the leader of the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday.

The pope shook hands with prelates attending the audience and, smiling, then turned to the crowd, urging them to return to their seats in order to “avoid contagion”.

He also used hand sanitiser which was handed to him by a personal assistant.

Francis focused on the socio-economic impact of the pandemic which he said was “without barriers”.

He advocated a society in which people should have more solidarity and that “health, in addition to being an individual good is also a public good”.

“A healthy society is one that takes care of everyone’s health,” the pope said.

The pope also castigated those who wanted to derive “economical or political benefits” from the pandemic without showing ethics.

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.

Before Wednesday he had never appeared with a mask and had continued to receive visitors within the Apostolic Palace — albeit fewer groups than before.

Last Thursday he shook hands with a group of French public figures committed to defending the environment. The group was exempted from wearing face masks and included the actress Juliette Binoche.

The 83-year-old pontiff finds it difficult to wear a mask that restricts his breathing, a member of his entourage said Wednesday.

When he was 21 Bergoglio suffered from acute pleurisy and surgeons removed part of his right lung, according to his biographer Austen Ivereigh.

This forced him to give up his dream of becoming a Jesuit missionary in Japan and he also had to give up playing football.

Apart from suffering a cold causing the pope to cancel appointments at the very beginning of the pandemic, his health has remained good.

Of more concern was the health of Benedict XVI, who at 93 became the oldest pope in history last week, even if the record is complicated by the fact that he stepped down in 2013 and holds the status of “pope emeritus.”

Benedict was the first pope to retire in 700 years — citing his diminishing strength — after eight years in office and was succeeded by Bergoglio, 10 years his junior.

Agence France-Presse

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