VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis expressed his delight on Wednesday as he resumed his weekly general audience in public for the first time in six months, reflecting a decline in coronavirus cases in Italy.

During the winter and early spring, the pope had delivered his weekly address via a video link from the Vatican's Apostolic Library. On Wednesday morning, he stepped out into the San Damaso Courtyard, where a few hundred faithful had gathered.

"I am happy to restart this face-to-face meeting again, because let me tell you something, it’s not nice to talk in front of nothing, just at the camera, it is not nice," he said.

The 84-year-old pope, who has been vaccinated against the virus, went up and greeted some of those present, signing a book and wearing a red hat that a priest gave him.

The public sat in seats arranged to ensure social distancing and everyone had their temperatures checked as they arrived. Many places were left empty.

"It was wonderful to hear him and to see how close he was to us. It was a very special moment indeed," said visitor Adriano Chang.

During the worst of the coronavirus crisis last November, Italy was recording more than 40,000 new cases a day. On Tuesday, that number had fallen to just under 7,000. 

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Estelle Shirbon) ((; Reuters Messaging: