Pope Francis slowly made his way up the steps to the place in St. Peter’s Square where he usually presides at the general audience. Alone, he listened to the Gospel reading.
Alone, he prayed before the icon of the Virgin Mary, Salus Populi Romani, and then the miraculous crucifix from the Church of San Marcello del Corso, where he had gone on pilgrimage two weeks earlier.
And after spending time in Eucharistic Adoration, the 83-year-old pope took the monstrance from an altar that was placed in the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica went — alone — to bless an empty square pelted by the rain.
As he did so the bells of St. Peter’s rang out, joined by the wailing sirens of an ambulance that was making its way to the nearby Santo-Spirito Hospital.
It was an “extraordinary” Urbi et Orbi blessing, both in its timing and its form.
The special papal blessing “to the city and the world” usually takes place only at Christmas, Easter, and on the day of a pope’s election. There is always a huge crowd for the occasion.
But this time Francis gave the Urbi et Orbi before an empty square. In the distance was only a handful of journalists, dwarfed by numerous police who were enforcing the confinement measures that were imposed some three weeks earlier on the people of Italy.
The pope wanted to offer this extraordinary prayer and blessing as a response to the “extraordinary” circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, especially the doubt that has seized the world.
That was no more true than in Italy where, at the time the prayer began, officials announced that the country had recorded nearly 1,000 deaths in the previous 24-hour period.
‘Do not be afraid!
The pope prayed for all the sick and those who care for them, as well as those who are with them in prayer.
He also prayed for the world — urging it to be converted and offering it hope through the Urbi et Orbi blessing.
The colonnades, like the arms of the square, usually symbolize the Church in heaven embracing the Church on earth. This day it particularly expressed the Church’s embrace of the entire world.
“From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace,” Francis said.
He implored God to “give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts” and once again repeated the words St. John Paul II exclaimed before tens of thousands of people in this very square in 1978 on the day he was installed as bishop of Rome: “Be not afraid!”
Francis offered a powerful meditation on the calming of the storm (Mark 4:35-41), when the disciples panicked and thought that Christ, asleep in the stern of the boat, had abandoned them.
The pope compared the Gospel passage to the current pandemic.
‘For weeks now it has been evening’
“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm,” he said.
The steadily falling rain and darkening sky made his words all the more poignant.
“For weeks now it has been evening,” Francis continued.
“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,” he said.
The pope noted that a storm also exposes “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”
He said it reveals “the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image.”
‘A time to choose what matters and what passes away’
Francis offered God words of repentance on behalf of the entire world.
“In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything,” he said.
“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,” the pope continued.
“We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’,” he exclaimed.
On this Lenten Friday, the pope called the world to “conversion” and invited all of us “to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing.”
“It is not the time of (God’s) judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not,” he said.
‘The Lord invites us in the midst of our tempest’
Francis insisted several times on the need for solidarity and fellowship, he also dwelt at length on those “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.”
He specifically mentioned “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.” …
“The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering,” the pope added.
He said even in “isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things,” Christ is there. He “is risen and is living by our side,” the pope said.
‘Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope’
Finally, Francis urged us to “embrace the cross” in the same way he had done earlier right after praying before the miraculous crucifix. During that long period of meditation signs of supplication could be read upon his face.
“Embracing one’s 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,” he concluded.
“Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.”
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