ROME (RNS) Pope Francis made a surprise visit on Friday (Sept. 16) to a Rome hospital to bless seriously ill newborns and then stopped at a hospice for terminally ill patients.
The impromptu visits, the latest in the pope’s unscheduled “Mercy Friday” appointments, were part of the Holy Year of Mercy and aimed at highlighting the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of all life at all stages.
Twelve babies with serious defects were among the patients at Francis’ first stop, at the neonatal unit at the San Giovanni Hospital in the heart of Rome.
The pontiff donned a surgical mask and robe before he stopped at the incubators. Five of the infants, including a set of twins, are suffering from severe health complications and are on feeding or breathing tubes.
The Vatican keeps these visits secret until the last minute, and hospital staff were surprised to see the pope as he entered the intensive care unit.
“The Holy Father stopped at each incubator and greeted the parents who were there, giving them comfort and courage,” the Vatican said.
He also visited infants who were recovering in another unit.
Later Francis made a second stop at Villa Speranza, a hospice for 30 terminally ill patients that is attached to the Agostino Gemelli Hospital.
The Vatican said the pope visited with each patient and their relatives, many of whom were overcome with emotion when they met the pope.
The Vatican said the pope had wanted these two visits to give a “strong sign of the importance of life from the first moment to its natural end,” and said the visits once again underscored Francis’ concern for the weak and those living in precarious circumstances.
Previous “Mercy Friday” visits have included visits to a drug and alcohol rehab center, a nursing home, a residence for retired priests and a center for women rescued from prostitution.
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)