Pope cancels traditional pre-Christmas ceremony due to COVID-19

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis leads the Immaculate Conception celebration prayer in Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Italy, December 8, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has cancelled a ceremony that traditionally begins Rome's Christmas season on Dec. 8 at the Spanish Steps because of coronavirus restrictions, the Vatican said on Monday.

The pope customarily places a wreath of flowers at the base of a 12-metre column bearing a statue of the Madonna and blesses from a distance another wreath already placed around the statue's arm by firefighters using a ladder.

The Vatican said Francis would skip the ceremony, which popes have been carrying out on the feast of the Immaculate Conception since 1953, "in order to avoid any risk of contagion caused by gatherings of people".

Thousands of people usually line the streets near the area to see the pope and pray with him.

The Vatican said the pope would instead hold a private service to entrust the city, its people and the sick around the world to the Madonna.

It has already announced that access to all of the pope's traditional Christmas activities, including his "Urbi et Orbi" ("To the city and the world") blessing and message, will be restricted because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Only a limited number of people will be allowed into St. Peter's Basilica for papal Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses, which will be broadcast on television and streamed on the internet.

Last month, the pope's weekly general audiences were moved back indoors with public participation after a period when a limited number of people were allowed to take part.

Recently, more than a dozen Swiss Guards and one person who lives in the residence that houses the pope tested positive for the coronavirus and had to be quarantined.

The first Western country hit by the virus, Italy has recorded 54,904 COVID-19 deaths since its outbreak emerged in February, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain. It has also registered 1.585 million cases to date.

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