Pope Francis walks to reach S. Marcello al Corso church, where there is a miraculous crucifix that in 1552 was carried in a procession around Rome to stop the great plague, Sunday, March 15, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (Vatican News via AP)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis left the Vatican to make a surprise visit to two churches on Sunday even as Italian health authorities demanded that people to stay home as much as possible to battle the country's severe coronavirus outbreak.

The Vatican says the pope's trip included a brief stroll Sunday on a main Rome street to pray for the end of the coronavirus pandemic. The pope did a stretch of the street "as if on a pilgrimage," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

Francis prayed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then went to a church which has a crucifix carried in a 1522 procession in Rome when the city was stricken with plague.

His walkabout came just hours after the Holy See announced that Vatican's Holy Week ceremonies will go ahead but without public attendance as Italy tries to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement that "as far as Holy Week liturgical celebrations are concerned, I can specify that all are confirmed."

But Bruni added: "As things stand, under study are the ways they would be carried out and who would participate while respecting the security measures put in place to avoid spread of the coronavirus." He added that in any case, faithful will be able to follow the ceremonies on TV, radio and through online media.

Vatican media added "until April 12 the General Audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website."

April 12 is Easter Sunday, when normally tens of thousands of faithful would fill St. Peter's Square for an outdoor papal Mass, listen to the pope's speech and receive his blessing, delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.

Although Easter itself wasn't specified in the Vatican statements, it appeared likely restrictions on large gatherings might well continue in Italy. The Italian government has said it would decide whether measures, now in effect through April 3, would need extending or tightening.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday on April 5, with tradition calling for an outdoor Mass in the square also on that day, when faithful clutch palm fronds and olive branches.

Italy, the center of Europe's conoravirus outbreak is under severe lockdown, with the public restricted from leaving their homes except to buy food, go to work or a few other urgent reasons, and must stay at least one meter (about three feet) away from each other. The disease for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, like the elderly and the fragile, it can cause more severe illness.

At 83 with one lung partially compromised, Francis is both. The Vatican says he has had a cold in recent weeks.

Italy's virus cases surged again Sunday, with 3,590 more cases in a 24-hour period for a total of 24,747. Deaths also jumped, with 368 additional patients, bringing the overall death toll to 1,809. The additional infections reported Sunday represented the biggest day-to-day increase so far in Italy.

With St. Peter's Square closed to the public, and one case of infection reported by the Vatican recently, Francis on Sunday delivered his traditional weekly commentary and blessing from the Apostolic Library instead of from a window overlooking the vast square.

Francis praised priests for "creativity" in tending to their flocks, especially in the region of Lombardy, northern Italy, where thousands have been hospitalized or are in quarantine. He said their efforts demonstrated there are "a thousand ways to be near" to the faithful, if not physically.

Some churches in Italy are being allowed to stay open for individual prayer, but all public Masses are forbidden during Italy's lockdown to discourage crowding.


Luca Bruno in Giussano, Italy, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Iain Sullivan in Madrid, contributed to this report.