ROME (AP) — Pope Francis presided over a pandemic-aware Ash Wednesday service, with reduced participation of the faithful and a revised rite to reduce the chance of infection as the virus and its variants continue to spread through Italy.

The Vatican’s liturgy office last month issued new guidance for priests celebrating Ash Wednesday, which ushers in the Lenten season leading up to Easter. The guidelines call for the masked priest to deliver the prayer just once during the ritual and sprinkle ashes on the head of the faithful, to ensure maximum social distancing.

In many places, priests smudge a cross on the forehead of the faithful, in a sign of repentance, but the Vatican guidelines indicate sprinkling instead.

Francis did as instructed, though he eschewed the facemask. The 84-year-old pope, who lost part of a lung due to an infection when he was in his 20s, has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, as have most Vatican employees.

During his homily, Francis said Lent was a time to take stock and rediscover a path to God.

“In this life, we will always have things to do and excuses to offer,” he said. “But right now, brothers and sisters, right now is the time to return to God.”

Francis celebrated the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica before just a few dozen faithful rather than the Santa Sabina basilica on the nearby Aventine hill where his Ash Wednesday service is usually held. The annual event usually draws a huge crowd given Francis and his cardinals process through the neighborhood.

For a year, Francis has largely refrained from leaving the Vatican amid travel restrictions and other measures to curb infections.

Italian officials have imposed individual lockdowns in several towns across Italy in recent days amid new virus clusters, including of the more highly contagious variant detected in Britain. Health officials have warned that further restrictions may be necessary given a predicted rise in cases.

Francis is due to visit Iraq in early March, despite new lockdown measures there forced by a new surge of infections. The Vatican has insisted plans for the trip were going ahead.

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