Pope Francis made a private pre-dawn visit to a Rome religious landmark on Wednesday for the second year in a row because of the Covid-19 pandemic and decried the "stone hearts" of those not moved by the suffering of migrants.
Francis, wearing a full-length white overcoat against the cold, arrived near Rome's Spanish steps before 6:15 am (0515 GMT), and stayed for 10 minutes. He prayed and placed a basket of white roses at the base of a 12-metre column bearing a statue of the Madonna.
8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a national holiday in Italy and some other countries of Catholic tradition. For the second consecutive year, Francis was forced to cancel a traditional afternoon public service that would have attracted thousands, increasing the possibility of contagion.
A Vatican statement said he had prayed for healing the victims of Covid-19, war and climate change, and asked the Madonna to "melt the stone hearts of those who put up walls to keep other people's pain away from them".
The world migration crisis was a theme at the centre of his recent trip to Cyprus and Greece, which ended on Monday.
During that trip, he condemned the exploitation of migrants for political purposes, branded the global indifference to their plight the "shipwreck of civilisation" and lamented that Europe was in "the era of walls and barbed wire".
On the Greek island of Lesbos, home to several thousand refugees, he said it was "distressing" that some European leaders wanted to use common funds to build a wall and put up barbed wire to keep immigrants out. read more .
Poland's prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has called for the EU to jointly finance a border wall to stem the tide of migrants coming from the Middle East via Belarus to Poland.