Sean Salai, S.J.March 26, 2021
Pope Francis leads a prayer service in an empty St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 27, 2020. (CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, pool via Reuters)

“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.”

One year ago, on March 27, 2020, Pope Francis spoke these words in an empty St. Peter’s Square during a livestreamed, nighttime Urbi et Orbi blessing of the coronavirus-afflicted world.

As part of this blessing and its rare plenary indulgence, Francis conducted eucharistic adoration and benediction just inside the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. He also walked outside in the rainy night to venerate the miraculous crucifix of the Church of San Marcello al Corso—the only religious image to survive a fire that gutted the church on May 23, 1519—that Vatican personnel had placed there for him.

This crucifix, last venerated by Pope St. John Paul II during the Day of Forgiveness in the Jubilee Year of 2000, normally appears in processions at the Vatican only around every 50 years.

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.

Thus began a year of bold symbolic action and focused papal commentary on Covid-19 that has redirected and marked this papacy in ways that continue to unfold and become clear.

During this exceptionally prolific 12-month period, Francis has published a number of documents and books outlining his pastoral response to the pandemic as a call to global solidarity among people and nations. Moreover, always in a Gospel context, he has called for bold new thinking in our global response to the humanitarian crisis of Covid-19.

In the above excerpt from his commentary on Mk 4:35-41, Francis compared the Covid-19 lockdowns to the fearful situation of the apostles in Mark’s Gospel, who found Jesus asleep in a boat with them during a storm at sea. When Jesus awoke, he rebuked both the storm and the apostles for lacking faith in him, bringing peace to the turbulent scene. Like the apostles, Francis said contemporary peoples must pull together and place their faith in God to endure the virus.

The official text and photographs of this extraordinary papal moment, as well as excerpts from the pope’s daily Mass homilies during the pandemic, appear in a new picture book titled Why Are You Afraid? Have You No Faith? The Vatican released this book simultaneously in six languages on March 24; the English-language version of the book is available in the United States from Our Sunday Visitor.

The pope made Covid-19 a constant focus, calling again and again for people to stay connected with each other as they worked together to row through the storm of a terrifying virus.

Speaking of the cross as a necessary stage in the Lenten journey to Easter, another excerpt in the book proclaims: “Embracing his cross means finding 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.”

This book highlights a marked shift of papal priorities from synods and synodality, a theme dominant in this papacy through the end of 2019, to the global crisis of interpersonal isolation and economic injustice that the Covid-19 pandemic exposed and deepened.

Even with the Vatican shut down all of last summer, the pope made Covid-19 a constant focus of his livestreamed homilies and statements, calling again and again for people to stay connected with each other as they worked together to row through the storm of a terrifying virus.

Among his pastoral statements and actions, Francis suggested that leaders consider a universal basic income, calling upon world leaders to work together on finding creative new solutions to the economic as well as emotional impacts of the shutdowns. In an Easter Sunday letter to the Popular Movements on April 12, 2020, Francis wrote:

Street vendors, recyclers, carnival workers, small farmers, construction workers, seamstresses, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time...and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.

On Oct. 3, at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, Francis capped this activity by signing the encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti” on fraternity and social friendship. Here the pope recalled the gift of his namesake, St. Francis, for seeing all of God’s creatures as his brothers and sisters, an image that could inspire Christians to find creative new ways of caring for one another and staying connected amid the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns.

This document continues the pope’s theme over this past year of reaching out to Jesus and to others for connection and support during a time of darkness. Francis writes in the encyclical:

As I was writing this letter, the Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities. Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality (No. 7).

In December 2020, Simon and Schuster published Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, an English-language book on hope amid Covid-19 based on a conversation between Pope Francis and the journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh.

[Podcast: Austen Ivereigh on writing a book with Pope Francis (during a pandemic)]

There, Francis sharpens his criticism of individualism and self-sufficiency as paradigms for dealing with Covid-19:

It is moments like these, when we feel a radical powerlessness that we cannot escape on our own, that we come to our senses and see the selfishness of the culture in which we are immersed, that denies the best of who we are. And if, at such moments, we repent, and look back to our Creator and to each other, we might remember the truth that God put in our hearts: that we belong to Him and to each other (14).

In all of his pastoral statements and actions on the pandemic since his iconic Urbi et Orbi blessing one year ago, Francis has urged people to love God and love their neighbor as themselves. But more than that, he has highlighted how Covid-19 has revealed the limitations of our global selfishness, pointing to the need for international cooperation rather than competition.

Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.

Perhaps more than any other world leader, Pope Francis recognizes that the world cannot and will not merely “go back to normal” after the virus subsides because it has exposed the dysfunctions of our globalized selfishness. As another Lent fades away and a new Easter dawns, it now remains to be seen whether his words and deeds will have any impact on combating the social injustices which the virus exposed by removing so many comfortable distractions.

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