Pope coughs his way through speech amid coronavirus outbreak

Pope Francis has pulled out of a week-long spiritual retreat for the first time in his seven-year papacy because he has been struck down with an illness.

The 83-year-old pontiff spluttered and coughed his way through a speech addressing pilgrims on Sunday and had to pause twice to compose himself.

He told thousands who gathered for his weekly appearance from a window high above St Peter’s Square, in the Vatican City, that he would not be able to attend due to a cold.

Francis asked for prayers for the Lenten retreat, adding: ‘Unfortunately, a cold prevents me from participating this year… I will be following the meditation from here’.

The announcement comes as Italy battles the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with dozens of towns in the north of the country being placed into quarantine.

Italian officials announced on Sunday the death toll has risen to 34, while almost 1,700 people have tested positive for Covid-19, although six of those were in Lazio, where Rome is located.

However, the Vatican said the pope was suffering with a ‘sight illness’ and gave no further details.

Francis’ appearance today was the first time he has been seen publicly since Ash Wednesday, when he was also seen coughing and blowing his nose during Mass.

Earlier this week, he cancelled two planned official audiences – formal affairs in the Apostolic Palace where Francis would have delivered a speech and greeted a great number of people at the end.

Those were to include an audience with an international bioethics organization and with members of the scandal-marred Legion of Christ religious order.

Francis has never previously cancelled so many official audiences or events during his papacy.

The Vatican said he was continuing to work from his residence at the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel and was receiving people in private.

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