Pope reverts to mask-less old ways amid growing criticism

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Pope Francis meets with bishops in the Paul VI hall on the occasion of the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME – A day after donning a face mask for the first time during a liturgical service, Pope Francis was back to his mask-less old ways Wednesday despite surging coronavirus infections across Europe and growing criticism of his behavior and the example he is setting.

Francis shunned a face mask again during his Wednesday general audience in the Vatican auditorium, and didn't wear one when he greeted a half-dozen mask-less bishops at the end. He shook hands and leaned in to chat privately with each one.

While the clerics wore masks while seated during the audience, all but one took his mask off to speak to the pope. Only one kept it on, and by the end of his tete-a-tete with Francis, had lowered it under his chin.

Vatican regulations now require facemasks to be worn indoors and out where distancing can’t be “always guaranteed.” The Vatican hasn’t responded to questions about why the pope wasn’t following either Vatican regulations or basic public health measures to prevent COVID-19.

Francis has faced sharp criticism even from his most ardent supporters and incredulousness from some within the Vatican for refusing to wear a mask.

Just this week, the Vatican expert and columnist with Religion News Service, the Rev. Thomas Reese, wrote a blistering, tough-love open letter to the pope offering him six reasons he should wear a mask and urging like-minded faithful to troll the pope’s @Pontifex Twitter feed to shame him into setting a better example.

“You’re the boss; you should follow your own rules,” Reese wrote. “When the clergy hold themselves above the rules, we call that clericalism, a sin that you have loudly denounced."

At the start of his audience Wednesday, Francis explained to the faithful why he didn't plunge into the crowd as he usually would do. But he said his distance from them was for their own well-being, to prevent crowds from forming around him.