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Pope Francis wipes his nose during Ash Wednesday Mass inside the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. Photo: AP

Pope Francis cancels visit with Rome priests over ‘slight’ illness amid Italy coronavirus outbreak

  • No word from Vatican about nature of ‘indisposition’, but pontiff was seen coughing and blowing nose during Ash Wednesday event
  • Three more coronavirus patients die in Italy, bringing death toll to 17, with 650 infected

Pope Francis is sick and skipped a planned Mass with Rome clergy across town on Thursday, officials said.

The Vatican said the 83-year-old pontiff had a “slight indisposition” and would proceed with the rest of his planned work on Thursday. But Francis “preferred to stay near Santa Marta”, the Vatican hotel where he lives.

There was no word from the Vatican about the nature of his illness, but the pope was seen coughing and blowing his nose during the Ash Wednesday Mass.

The news came as the number of coronavirus infections in Italy rose to 650, with three new deaths taking the toll to 17. The latest coronavirus patients to die were three people in their 80s in the northern region of Lombardy, health agency chief Angelo Borrelli said. Rome had three cases, but all three were cured.

People wearing face masks attend the weekly general audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

Francis had been expected to go to the St John Lateran basilica across town to meet Rome clergy and celebrate a penitential Mass at the start of Lent. Francis is bishop of Rome, but delegates the day-to-day running of the archdiocese to a vicar.

The Argentine pope has generally enjoyed good health. He lost part of one lung as a young man because of a respiratory illness, and suffers from sciatica, which makes walking difficult.

Francis has had a busy schedule lately, including his public general audience on Wednesday and the Ash Wednesday service later that day in a Roman basilica.

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During the audience, Francis made a point to shake hands with the faithful in the front row, kissed a baby during his Popemobile spin through St Peter’s Square and greeted visiting bishops at the end. The prelates, however, appeared to be refraining from kissing his ring or embracing him, as they normally would do.

On Wednesday, Francis commented on the public health crisis, expressing his “closeness to those who are ill with coronavirus and to health care workers who are caring for them”.

Additional reporting by DPA