02/26/2020 19:14 EST | Updated 02/27/2020 06:23 EST

Coronavirus Fears Reach The Vatican As Pope Francis Marks Ash Wednesday

Amid the growing COVID-19 outbreak, Catholic churches in Italy and the Philippines took steps to protect the faithful.

Thousands of Catholics from around the world gathered at the Vatican on Ash Wednesday to attend the pope’s weekly general audience. But amid growing fears over a fast-spreading new strain of coronavirus, some of the faithful took extra precautions.

A handful of the pilgrims at St. Peter’s Square could be spotted wearing medical face masks in an apparent attempt to protect themselves from the illness known as COVID-19, The Associated Press reported. Pope Francis greeted prelates and some audience members with handshakes, but most clergy refrained from embracing the pope or kissing his ring, as they normally would have done.

In his message to the crowd, Francis offered his sympathy to victims of the coronavirus.

“I want to again express my closeness to those suffering from the coronavirus and the health care workers who are treating them, as well as the civil authorities and all those who are working to help patients and stop the contagion,” Francis said

Remo Casilli / Reuters
Pope Francis greets Catholic pilgrims during his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Feb. 26, 2020.

About 81,000 people around the globe have been sickened by the new strain of coronavirus since it first emerged in China. Nearly 3,000 people have died from the disease, according to The New York Times.

The pope’s general audience this week fell on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and renewal in the Christian calendar. While Lenten services at the Vatican took place as usual, several major Italian dioceses canceled Masses and other large religious celebrations over fears about the coronavirus. The Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice was canceled after a handful of elderly people in the city tested positive for COVID-19, AP reports. 

The Vatican announced Wednesday that Catholic catacombs across Italy have been temporarily closed to the public as a “precautionary move,” since these spaces often have high humidity and limited ventilation, conditions that favor the spread of disease.

Over 370 coronavirus cases have been reported in Italy so far, prompting officials to lock down entire towns, close schools in major cities, and cancel sporting events and cultural festivals.

Remo Casilli / Reuters
People, a few in face masks, wait for Pope Francis to arrive for his weekly general audience at the Vatican.

The World Health Organization announced that on Tuesday, the daily count of new cases reported outside China exceeded the count of new cases in China for the first time. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued advisories for Americans traveling to China, South Korea, Iran, Japan and Italy. 

There are around 60 cases in the U.S., the majority of which are linked to a cruise ship that has been quarantined in Yokohama, Japan. Many Chinese American churches, which are mainly evangelical Protestant, have taken extra safety precautions in light of the health scare, including canceling meetings and asking parents not to bring children to church if they’ve recently traveled to Asia.

Ezra Acayan via Getty Images
Filipino Catholics wearing protective masks touch an image of Jesus Christ during Ash Wednesday services at a church in Paranaque city, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Priests in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, have also taken steps to combat COVID-19. The country’s bishops have asked people to receive the Eucharist with their hands, instead of having it placed in their mouths, and to avoid holding fellow parishioners’ hands during prayer. On Ash Wednesday, some priests chose to sprinkle ashes on parishioners’ heads instead of drawing a cross with the ashes on their foreheads. And looking ahead to the end of Lent, the bishops have advised Catholics not to kiss or touch the cross, which is a common act of veneration on Good Friday.

“Instead, the faithful are requested to genuflect or make a profound bow as they venerate the cross,” said Archbishop Romulo Valles, leader of the Philippine bishops’ conference, according to AP.

Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, cautioned that the outbreak “is not a time for mutual blame” but for “universal brotherhood.” 

“Disasters and Virus pandemic periodically remind humanity that we all have only one planet: We either stand together or fall together. Lessons need to be learned, transcending parochial interests,” he said in a statement on Tuesday, according to the Catholic news site Crux.

“Humanity will overcome because it has more grace to be compassionate,” the cardinal added.

Pacific Press via Getty Images
People wear face masks to protect themselves while visiting the Vatican on Ash Wednesday.