One week ago, Pope Francis celebrated a special service blessing the city of Rome and the entire world in this time of pandemic. Italy has been especially hard hit by the coronavirus, and St. Peter’s Square, which would normally be packed with tourists and well-wishers, was empty and silent.
The phrase “the wonder of technology” has become a cliché, but it was a grace to be able to be present at this service through a livestream from the Vatican. I came into it late because I was working at home and busy with meetings and deadlines, but I found myself weeping during the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and then the solemn benediction.
One of the gifts of Catholicism is the power of our symbols and rituals to communicate without words at times when no words are sufficient. This was one of those times. The music, the clouds of incense, the presence of Christ in the monstrance moved me in ways that little else had in these weeks of isolation, social distancing, uncertainty, and fear. And I was moved by the commitment of Pope Francis. Others have commented on his long, slow walk across the square in the rain. I noticed his limping walk as he moved from the icon of the Blessed Mother to the ancient crucifix, and then into St. Peter’s. I was struck by the realization that I had stood in that great basilica when I went on pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome. All the events and memories of our lives come together in deeply prayerful moments like this.
In his seven years as pope, Francis has done so much to bring our attention and our prayer to the plight of the poor, the suffering, the homeless, the vulnerable. All of us, to some extent, find ourselves in those categories these days. The world has truly become the field hospital in which the pope has called his people to minister.
Now that I’ve had some time to settle into this new reality in our world and our lives, I am once more finding both comfort and challenge in Pope Francis' words. Spend some time reflecting on his commentary on the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm. Here are a few key thoughts.
“For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
“Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.
“From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’ (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).”