Over the course of 40 years covering 3 popes, this reporter has seen hundreds of ceremonies and celebrations, of all kinds, in St. Peter’s Square; on several occasions with the square filled to its maximum capacity of 100 thousand people. The events I’ve attended have included countless Christmas and Easter celebrations, Consistories, the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the installation of his successor, Benedict XVI.
But never before have I witnessed a ceremony like the one that took place on Friday evening when Pope Francis, dressed in a simple white cassock, crossed the empty square alone under the pouring rain and slowly ascended the stairs leading to the platform covered by a large canopy, just in front of the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica.
There wasn’t a single other person in the square or under the colonnade designed by Bernini, that encloses it. At the far end of the square, outside the granite posts that mark the border between the Vatican City and Italy, scores of police cars were parked with their blue lights flashing eerily and reflecting off the wet payment and the walls of St. Peter’s.
For a moment, the image of Francis in his white cassock slowly crossing the emptiness of St. Peter’s Square all by himself reminded me of an image burnt into my memory many years ago, that of Neil Armstrong, an astronaut in a white space suit, walking on the surface of the moon, on July 20, 1969. Shortly before taking off to return to Earth, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin unveiled a plaque that says: “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Some observers consider Pope Francis the most important moral authority of the present time. Friday evening, stepping up to the podium, he seemingly accepted this burden upon his shoulders and spoke to Catholics, to believers and non-believers, to the whole world. He spoke slowly and his voice was heavy as he delivered a damning indictment of our modern, consumerist lifestyle and said the coronavirus crisis was the time of “our judgment”, meaning a time for us to choose a different lifestyle.
Standing alone under the canopy erected in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, while the rain continued to fall, the Pope looked out at the empty square in front of him. “Open our hearts to hope,” he said in his opening prayer, adding, “Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts.”
For a moment, the Pope’s words seemed to reflect the storm raging in the Roman sky. Francis likened the coronavirus pandemic to a storm laying bare illusions that people can be self-sufficient and that instead leaves “all of us fragile and disoriented” and needing each other’s help and comfort.
“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.”
Then the Pope decried humankind’s errors and lack of compassion that had led it to the current crisis.
“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. The tempest 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. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.
In this storm, 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.”
We are victims of our own hubris pointed out the Pope.
“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. 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.”
The time has come, said Francis, to set our lives back on track.
Today was not the time of our judgment, the Pope clarified, but rather a time for people to focus on what is truly important, “a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” Pope Francis underlined the importance of the people who are helping the world carry on during the pandemic.
“It is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: 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. We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate 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 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. In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How 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. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.”
Ending his homily, Francis referred to the 17th-century colonnade that encircles St. Peter’s Square. “From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.”
In the future, when we will look back at the period in which the Coronavirus reminded man of his mortality, when an invisible, infinitely small organism – in fact, many biologists consider viruses to be non-living because they lack a cellular structure and cannot metabolize by themselves – forced us to abandon our hectic lifestyles and brought the world to a standstill, it is most likely that one of the iconic images will be a photograph of Pope Francis addressing the world while standing alone in St. Peter’s Square. Its caption might be a quote from the Pope’s homily: “We thought we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”
Pope at Urbi et orbi: Full text of Pope Francis’ homily will be found here.