From the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica on a bleak and wet Friday evening, Pope Francis held a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament in his hands and blessed the inhabitants of the city of Rome and of the world, leading a prayer service in which he implored God to rid the world of the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked such havoc.
Earlier in his homily he told people worldwide: “Do not be afraid,” and he sought to assure them that “the Lord will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.” At the same time, he called on everyone “to be converted and change our way of life.”
He said this moment in history is “a time to choose what matters in life and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
Pope Francis is a man of great faith. He believes firmly in the power of prayer and trusts God to rid the world of the pandemic today, just as he believes God has done in past centuries when people prayed to him in times of plague.
Pope Francis: This moment in history is “a time to choose what matters in life and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
To reinforce his message this evening, Pope Francis had two greatly venerated images placed in front of the gates of St. Peter’s during the service: the icon of Our Lady with the child Jesus in her arms—the protectress of the Roman people (“Salus Populi Romani”)—which is believed to have helped rid the city of the plague in the 6th century and cholera in the 19th, and the miraculous cross from the church of St. Marcello, which is said to have helped counter the plague in 1552.
He had prayed before these images in two Rome churches on March 15, and he did so again this evening after delivering a profound and inspiring homily in which he commented on the Gospel story (Mark 4: 35-41) that recounts how the disciples, fearing they would drown in a boat when a storm rose while Jesus was also onboard sleeping, cried out to him “to save them.”
Francis told the countless millions who were following this moment of prayer by television and social media, “Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm” and “we find ourselves afraid and lost.”
Looking out over an empty St. Peter’s Square, an image repeated in many town squares across the world that are without people tonight, Francis said a “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.”
But in this darkness, he said, “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.”
And like the disciples, “we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm” and “we find ourselves afraid and lost.”
“It is easy to recognize ourselves in this story,” Pope Francis said, but “what is harder to understand is Jesus’ attitude.” He noted that while the disciples “are quite naturally alarmed and desperate, Jesus is in the stern, in the part of the boat that sinks first…and in spite of the tempest, he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father.”
Here, Francis would seem to be alluding to the question many people are asking today: Where is God as the pandemic spreads worldwide?
He recalled that “when Jesus wakes up,” he calms the storm but then turns to the disciples in a reproaching voice and asks: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
Francis explained that the disciples “had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him, saying, ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’
“They think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them,” Francis said, adding, this “is a phrase that wounds and…would have shaken Jesus because he, more than anyone, cares about them and us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples.”
Referring to Covid-19 pandemic that has hit 175 countries, infected more than 500,000 people and led to the deaths of over 24,000 already, Francis said, “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.
Pope Francis: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”
“It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.” Moreover, “it lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us.” And so, the pope said, “We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.”
In this storm, Pope Francis said, “the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that [blessed] common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”
Francis said the words of Jesus—“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”—regard “all of us” because “in this world, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste.”
In fact, “we did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”
But “now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’”
Pope Francis said that at this crucial moment in history, “the Lord is calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you.” He said Jesus is calling us to “be converted”; he is “calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing…a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
He told his global audience of believers that to help us do so “we can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives” in this emergency provoked by the pandemic. He hailed this as “the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial.”
Pope Francis: “Our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time.”
It “demonstrates how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people—often forgotten people—who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest [fashion] show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time...doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women, and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”
He mentioned, too, “the many people” who “every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility.” These include “many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer,” as well as the many who “are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all.”
Francis said, “Prayer and quiet service are our victorious weapons.”
“Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation,” the pope said. “We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder. We need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars.
“Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives,” he said. “Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him onboard 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.”
He reminded Christians and people worldwide that in Jesus “we have an anchor; by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder; by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope; by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.”
He reminded them that “by embracing his cross,” we are called “to find the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring.” It means “finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.”
He encouraged them to embrace the Lord “in order to embrace hope.”
Pope Francis concluded by entrusting everyone “to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the Stormy Sea,” and prayed “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).
When he finished speaking, Francis, who had appeared throughout deep in concentration, prayed for a moment in front of both the icon of Our Lady and the miraculous crucifix and then participated in the adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and a recitation of prayers to rid the world of this plague.
He concluded the evening’s prayer service by imparting an extraordinary blessing called “Urbi et Orbi”—for the city of Rome (“urbi”) and the entire world (“orbi”)—and granted a plenary indulgence for their sins to Catholics worldwide, opening up the possibility for each one to begin again a fuller Christian life.