On Tuesday’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis made a surprise visit to Rome’s Piazza di Spagna to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, and to the basilica of St. Mary Major, where he celebrated a private Mass.

Every year on the feast – a solemnity celebrating Mary’s conception without sin – the pope visits the famed column of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in the Piazza di Spagna to lay a wreath and offer a prayer to the Mother of God.

When the pope goes, the entire square is typically filled with locals and tourists, who pack in tight to get a glimpse of the pope, hear his prayer, and to make their own act of devotion. The base of the statue is usually laden with flowers on the feast.

This year the pope was not expected to go given concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Vatican had announced Nov. 30 that instead of going to the Piazza di Spagna as usual, Francis would make a “private act of devotion” that did not involve the public.

However, it turns out the pope’s private act of homage was to pay a visit to the square on his own, without giving notice.

He arrived at the piazza around 7a.m. local time, while it was still somewhat dark, and laid a bouquet of white roses at the base of the statue, pausing for a moment of prayer under the heavy rainfall as an aide held an umbrella over his head.

According to a Vatican statement, the pope while there prayed that Mary “may watch with love over Rome and its inhabitants” and entrusted to her “all those who in this city and in the world are afflicted by illness and discouragement.”

Pope Francis then went to the basilica of St. Mary Major, where he prayed in front of the city’s famed Salus Popoli Romani (Health of the Roman People) icon and celebrated Mass in the basilica’s Chapel of the Nativity before returning to the Vatican.

St. Mary Major is a favorite of Pope Francis, who typically stops to pray in front of the icon before and after international trips.

During his outing to Piazza di Spagna, the pope – who has been criticized for not wearing a mask during public liturgies and audiences – wore a face mask for the entire visit, images of which were shared on social media.