Pope Francis admitted he had a tough time with Italy’s draconian COVID-19 lockdown, telling reporters aboard the papal plane back to Rome from Iraq that it felt like a “prison” at times, according to the New York Times, which had a reporter on the flight. That is what drove him to take his risky four-day, six-city trip, which ended Monday morning. When asked about the sanity of bucking scientific evidence that large crowds of unvaccinated people can quickly spread COVID-19 and its variants, potentially causing infection, and even death of the faithful, the pope said he had wrestled over whether to go during a pandemic, but ultimately decided God would take care of it. Speaking maskless, Francis, who has been vaccinated, spoke for about 50 minutes to the reporters on the plane—who had also all been vaccinated courtesy of the Vatican. “Trips cook slowly over time in my conscience. And [the virus threat] is one of the things that most made me think ‘Perhaps, perhaps,’” Francis said. “I thought about it a lot, I prayed a lot over this. And in the end I took the decision freely. It came from within and I said ‘the one who allows me to decide this way will look after the people,’” he said, apparently referring to God. “That is how I made the decision, after prayer and after awareness of the risks.”
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, told reporters that they had insisted COVID-19 restrictions in terms of mask wearing and social distancing would be followed, although photos of the Mass in Irbil on Sunday showed more than 10,000 largely maskless people sitting closely together. “We will be praying hard that things go well,” Gallagher said. Neither the pope nor the more than 70 journalists traveling with him will be required to quarantine upon their return to Rome.