On Friday evening at 6pm Rome time, Pope Francis led the world’s faithful in praying for an end to the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives and transformed societies around the globe.
The Pope began the service in a deserted St Peter’s Square: an arresting scene of desolation at the end of a day on which Italy learned of 4,401 people newly infected and 969 more people who succumbed to the disease between Thursday and Friday.
His 83-year-old body racked with sciatica, Pope Francis walked slowly and gingerly up the sacratum — the broad steps up to a landing before the façade of St Peter’s Basilica. He was helped at the last by his cerimoniere, Mgr Guido Marini, to climb the half-dozen stairs that took him to a chair beneath an awning.
Rain was falling softly as Francis made his way, and continued throughout the ceremony, during which the grey Roman twilight faded and night fell over the city.
As dusk gave way to darkness, a cantor chanted the reading from the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, Chapter 4, verses 35-40, in which Our Lord calms the sea by His command, causing witnesses to wonder, “Who is this (thinkest thou) that both wind and sea obey him?”
Pope Francis delivered his homily in the gathering dark, only partially sheltered from the elements: “For weeks now,” he said, “it has been evening.”
He expanded on the image: “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,” he said, speaking directly to an audience of the faithful all around the world. Hundreds of thousands had tuned in, not least because of the “extraordinary blessing”, to which a plenary indulgence – remission of temporal punishment due to sin – would be attached for all disposed to receive it.
Then, Pope Francis spoke directly to God, in terms that could illuminate the gloom of the present moment: “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing,” he said. “It is not the time of your 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.”
The Holy Father praised the prodigious work of doctors and nurses and other caregivers, as well as the labours of workaday folk – “forgotten people” – who are by their offices writing the current chapter in human history.
The present, he said, is first and last and always a moment in which to take up the Cross that is given us: a Cross, as he put it, that is at once an anchor and a rudder; fashioned and fixed before the world began, it keeps us fast, and also keeps us true.
“From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world,” Pope Francis prayed in conclusion. “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.”
“Our faith is weak and we are fearful,” Francis said, “but you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.”
The Cross that rose behind the cover on the steps was the miraculous Crucifix of St Marcellus (Marcellus being a 4th-century Pope), which the faithful carried in procession through the city in 1522, imploring the Divine Mercy to end the plague then raging in the city.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis visited the basilica dedicated to St Marcellus. On that same brief pilgrimage, he visited the icon of Our Lady, Salus populi Romani, one of the great treasures of the church of St Mary Major. This icon, too, was present, just opposite the Crucifix.
A few moments before, the Pope had asked the intercession of Mary, “Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea.” For this journalist, who for years lived just down the hill from St Mary Major and the Salus Populi Romani icon, and who received the Sacraments when he was a boy in a small Connecticut parish dedicated to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, hearing the line was uncanny.
A choral Sub tuum praesidium came up as Pope Francis made his way first to the icon of Our Lady for a brief moment of prayer. Then, by twenty-eight slow, careful steps, Francis covered the distance between the icon and the Crucifix — a younger Francis would have made the distance in half the strides and a quarter of the time — and participants heard the invisible choir intone: Adoramus te Christe et benedicimus tibi, quia per crucem sanctam tuam redemisti mundum. “We adore Thee O Christ, and we bless Thee, for by Thy Holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world.”
Pope Francis kissed Our Lord’s carved feet, and put his right hand to the cloth that covered His nakedness, and made the Sign of the Cross, as voices could be heard singing the Parce, Domine — “Spare, O Lord, Thy people, be not angry with us forever” — an antiphon taken from the book of the prophet Joel.
Then, as the Adoro te Devote was sung, Pope Francis adored the Living God, substantially present: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament.
Vested in a white cope with gold trim, the Pope incensed the Blessed Sacrament and then sat in silence before the monstrance, set on an altar in the basilica’s great doorway. Supplications followed: for relief from the wickedness and snares of Satan; for an end to plague and famine and violence and the tyranny of fear and the spirit of pride and enmity.
Ministers wrapped Pope Francis in a humeral veil, and he took the monstrance to the steps before the basilica, and he blessed the city and the world. Bells pealed and a siren wailed — almost the only noise beside the steady beat of rain — as the city and the world received the blessing.
Finally, we heard the Divine Praises and the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes: “Praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye peoples. For His mercy is confirmed upon us: and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.” The ministers carried the Body of Christ in the monstrance to the reservation chapel, and Christ’s Vicar on Earth, visibly pained and fairly hobbling, made his way out of the church and towards home.