The Pope has delivered a blessing which is normally reserved for Christmas and Easter in an extremely rare move in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis delivered the 'Urbi et Orbi' blessing - Latin for 'to the city and the world' - in an empty St Peter's Square this evening.
The blessing is usually given to mark the major Christian festivals of the year, or when a new Pope is elected. It was not clear whether a special blessing such as this one has ever happened before.
Catholics who watch the Pope's appearance online will be offered forgiveness for their sins if they receive the blessing.
Francis announced the surprise blessing in his weekly Angelus message last Sunday, which he has been delivering in a live-streamed format from inside the Vatican.
The pontiff's decision to give a special Urbi et Orbi blessing underlines the gravity of the pandemic, especially in Italy which has the world's highest death toll.
St Peter's Square has been empty for weeks because of Italy's national lockdown.
The Vatican Museums are also closed, including the Sistine Chapel, in another blow to Italy's valuable tourism industry.
The Vatican, which is surrounded by Rome, has imposed restrictions on movement and contact among its personnel in a bid to contain the virus.
Pope Francis has been celebrating Mass by himself to keep his distance, although he has urged other clergymen to 'have the courage' to visit the sick.
Francis himself is thought to have tested negative for coronavirus more than once, although the Vatican has never confirmed or denied this.
Alarms were raised after Francis coughed and blew his nose in church before hugging and kissing worshippers in St Peter's Square.
Francis has enjoyed generally good health, although he had part of one lung removed as a younger man.
Some priests have made themselves vulnerable to the virus by comforting the sick and presiding over funerals in recent weeks.
'A priest is always close to the people. For good or bad, it's his raison d'etre,' said Monsignor Giulio Dellavite, secretary-general of the diocese of Bergamo.
Of the 67 Italian priests who have died of the virus, more than 20 have come from Bergamo, including a bishop, according to the Catholic newspaper Avvenire.
But Giuseppe Locatelli, the priest of the parish in Albino, also in the province of Bergamo, says he has no plans to renounce his ministry.
'Priests are on the second line. Doctors and nurses are on the front line with the risks they take every day. We take fewer risks,' Locatelli said.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.