The Vatican has closed all of Italy’s ancient catacombs normally open to the public because of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
Vatican official Monsignor Pasquale Iacobone said the decision was taken to protect guides who work in the restricted underground spaces as well as visitors.
Monsignor Iacobone, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, told Reuters the grouping of visitors, small, narrow spaces and humid conditions in the catacombs made for ideal conditions for the virus to spread.
Italy is Europe’s worst-hit country, with 17 deaths from the virus and 650 infections. The outbreak is focused on a small cluster of towns in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions.
The catacombs are underground burial sites dating to the second century. The most famous and most visited are in Rome and consist of many kilometres of underground tunnels cut out of soft tufo stone.
The Vatican owns and administers them and numerous other Christian catacombs across Italy. About a dozen have been explored and opened to the public, including in Sicily, Tuscany and Sardinia.
“We hope to be able to reopen them as soon as possible but we really had no choice,” Monsignor Iacobone said.
Pope slightly indisposed
The closure of the catacombs followed news that Pope Francis was slightly indisposed and cancelled an event at a Rome basilica on Feb. 27.
The Vatican said the pope was carrying out the rest of his schedule in his residence.
“Because of a slight indisposition, he preferred to stay inside Santa Marta,” the Vatican said, referring to the Vatican guest house where the 83-year-old pontiff lives.
“All other commitments will go ahead regularly,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
The Vatican released a picture of the pope and Cardinal Antonio Tagle, a Filipino who has just started in a new post in the Vatican, meeting on the morning pf Feb. 27 with members of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international environmental group. The meeting took place in a building steps from the guest house.
The pope appeared to have a cold and spoke with a slightly hoarse voice at his general audience on Feb. 26 and coughed during an afternoon Ash Wednesday service in a Rome church.
Pope Francis is missing a part of one lung. It was removed when he was in his early 20s in his native Buenos Aires after he suffered from tuberculosis, according to biographer Austen Ivereigh.
He also suffers some leg pain due to sciatica, for which he undergoes regular physical therapy, and which explains his occasional difficulty climbing steps.
But he is in generally good health and has been able to endure about four grueling international trips each year since his election in 2013.
The pope had been due to go to the Basilica of St. John’s in Lateran on the morning of Feb. 27 for a Lenten service with Roman priests.
Some Lent Ash Wednesday services were cancelled or limited in areas of northern Italy hit by the spread of coronavirus.
A number of people wore masks in St. Peter’s Square at the Feb. 27 audience but only one person was seen wearing one at the pope’s Ash Wednesday service.