Pope Francis has been a controversial figure, at least in Catholic circles; the general public, happily ignorant of the internal strife, has tended to see him differently. After yesterday’s extraordinary “Urbi et orbi” address, perhaps we can lay aside rancour and strife and agree that in this time of trial he rose to the occasion magnificently? I know I was not the only one who, in the viewing of it, was moved.
It has been a long time since I have contributed to this blog, but these are extraordinary times, and for a while, at least, I shall be here.
The “urbi et orbi” address is usually confined to Christmas and Easter, so the delivery of one at this time was, in itself, extraordinary; the circumstances which prompted it, and in which it was delivered, made it even more so.
The usually crowded St Peter’s square was empty. The rain poured down as it can in Rome. As he stood there, with the rain falling, he used the two resources available to the heir of St Peter – words and symbols: together they made a compelling and moving spectacle.
In the beginning was the Word, and the words of the Pope spoke to our hearts:
“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 it in people’s gestures, their glances give them away.”
We have all felt this in our daily lives as the depth of the crisis sinks in. The ordinary niceties of everyday life are suddenly rendered exotic: there is no handshaking, no hugs, no kisses; there is something rather like passing by on the other side. Under the bravado lies an understandable fear; people cope with this in various ways; but it is palpable, all the same.
In these circumstance Mark 4:35-41 were especially apposite. As the deluge continued, almost illustrating the Pope’s words, he reminded us of the frightened Disciples at sea who woke Jesus because they feared for their lives amid a strom of the sea of Gallille:
39 Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. 40 But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!”
Like the Disciples, we are fearful, but the Pope reminded us of something pertinent. The storm exposes:
“our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules” and lays bare “all those attempts to anesthetize ourselves”.
In this crisis, our blithe expectation that we could stay well in a sick world looks like what it is – folly. The Christian knows this. We know that only the saving grace of Christ can heal and save us; but how often, amid the hustle and bustle of daily life do we recall this, even to ourselves? Now, as the Pope said, our common humanity is highlighted; in Christ we are one.
We see this, too, in our new everyday reality. For each example of someone behaving badly, we see examples of people doing the opposite. I much appreciated a call from my own church to see if I was “okay” or “needed anything.” Daily acts of such kindnesses bind us back together; they remind us that God is love, and even as He poured His love out for us, we can imitate that example by helping each other.
Some have said that this pandemic is a judgement on mankind. God alone knows what we deserved and need, and not being Him, I leave such things to Him. The Pope, reminding us that Jesus is calling out to us to follow Him, reminded us that there is a judgment to be made – by us. Now is our “time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” Faith begins, he reminded the world, “when we realize we are in need of salvation” and are not self-sufficient.”
If we would turn to Jesus then He will do for us what He did for the Disciples. He will calm our fears: “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.”
His words moved me close to tears:
Jesus’ cross, said Pope Francis, is the anchor that has saved us, the rudder that has redeemed us, and our hope, because “by His cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from His redeeming love.”
“In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things,” he said, “let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: He is risen and is living by our side.”
So we embrace His cross in the hardships of the present time, and make room in our hearts “for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring.”
The Pope spoke in the presence of that great symbol of suffering and redemption, the Crucifix; but this was a special crucifix. Usually displayed in the church of San Marcello on the city’s Via del Corso, the Crucifix we all saw dates from the fourteenth century as has survived fire and plague. St Pope John Paul II embraced it in the year 2000 to mark the Day of Forgiveness during that Jubillee year.
The other symbol was the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani – usually housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In 593 Pope St. Gregory the Great carried the icon in procession to stop a plague. And in 1837 Pope Gregory XVI invoked her to put an end to a cholera epidemic. The Pope’s devotion to this icon is well-known, and this act of Marian devotion culminated in a moving appeal:
“Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. 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. 1Pet 5:7).”
In the shadow of the Cross, and through the Grace of Our Lady, the Pope provided a perfect example of Christian leadership. Let us hear his words, and through those words, let us hear again, the Word of God.
In this time of trial there is no other help; nor is there need for any other. As we are reminded in Romans:
38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might,
39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us pray for one another, and may the peace and love of Christ be with each one of us now and always.