Pope Francis defied Italy’s lockdown on Sunday afternoon, leaving his home in the Vatican to pray for those affected by the novel coronavirus at a famous crucifix that believers claim helped to save Romans from the plague in 1522.
The Pope stopped his Ford Focus car near the Church of San Marcello in Rome’s city center, where the crucifix is kept, in order to walk to the church as a sign of pilgrimage, the Vatican said.
“The Holy Father pleaded for an end to the pandemic that has struck Italy and the world,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
The Pope also called for “the healing of the many sick, remembered the numerous victims of these past days and asked that their families and friends might find consolation and comfort.”
He prayed for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, the Vatican said.
Pontiff prays before cross and icon
The wooden crucifix at San Marcello dates from the 14th century. Believers first hailed it as “miraculous” because it survived a fire which burned down the church on May 23, 1519.
Three years after the fire, during Rome’s Great Plague, the crucifix was carried by the faithful in procession through all the neighborhoods of Rome, from San Marcello to St. Peter’s Basilica.
The procession lasted 16 days, from August 4 to 20. Legend has it that the plague ended on the day the crucifix reached St. Peter’s.
Since the 1600s, processions from the Church of San Marcello to St. Peter’s Basilica have taken place during Jubilee Years. John Paul II embraced the crucifix during the Jubilee Year of 2000.
Shortly before praying before San Marcello’s crucifix, Pope Francis visited the icon of the Virgin Mary in the Church of St. Mary Major.
Known as Mary, Health of Romans (Salus Populi Romani) it is a favorite icon of Pope Francis; he visits it to pray before and after every papal trip, and ahead of other important events.
Like the San Marcello crucifix, the icon was also carried in procession in an effort to help stop a plague — this one in 593 — by Pope St. Gregory the Great.
In 1837, prayers were offered to the icon by Pope Gregory XVI in an attempt to end a cholera pandemic, according to the Vatican.