The pandemic Urbi et Orbi was a signal moment – perhaps the signature moment – in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Before last Friday evening, in the judgment of every news editor, every summary of the pontificate and every obituary would have begun with the “Who am I to judge?” airborne press conference.
After that dark and rainy prayer in an empty St Peter’s Square, that judgement will be revisited. The old Pope – at 83 walking with difficulty, breathing heavily, struggling to carry the monstrance erect – was holding up the entire Church in prayer, blessing the city and the world. It was actually the first time that Pope Francis seemed old. And his efforts were thus all the more inspiring. No one who saw it could remain unmoved.
The extraordinary Urbi et Orbi also revealed the identity of Francis more than any other public appearance. The Holy Father is many things, but not in the first place a pastor, a theologian or even a teacher. At heart, he is a demanding spiritual director in the tradition of St Ignatius. And in this time of crisis, he opened his heart as a spiritual father and offered sharp words of challenge.
This was not 1978, when St Paul VI, the lonely prophet, appeared after the murder of his friend, former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, delivering a lament of biblical power: “And who can listen to our lament, if not you, O God of life and death? You did not hearken to our supplication for the safety of Aldo Moro.” Never before had such a thing been seen: the pope, full of faith, nevertheless saying that God did not listen to his prayer.
This was not later in that same year, when St John Paul II, the courageous pastor of an oppressed flock, the first pope from a “far country” in more than 400 years, bent history to divine purposes. To the enslaved nations of the evil empire he announced a cry of liberation: Be not afraid!
This was not February 2013, when for the first time in history a sitting pope abdicated his office without any pressure or crisis. Benedict XVI, his generation’s greatest biblical theologian, returned to his favourite scriptural image of the Church. “There were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping,” Benedict said in final general audience. “But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his.” The prophet, the pastor, the theologian – all revealed at moments of high historic drama.
Pope Francis chose the same passage as Benedict. But his emphasis was not on the power of the Lord Jesus, even when apparently asleep, to calm the tempest. Rather he made the refrain of his homily the rebuke Jesus addresses to His disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
“Lord, your word this evening strikes us,” Pope Francis said. “Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: ‘Be converted!’ … You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing.”
There are plenty of comforting passages in the scriptures suitable for a pandemic. I doubt any other bishop would have chosen for a time of global pandemic: Have you no faith? It might even seem a bit harsh. Pope Francis though is a longtime director of souls, who knows when to ask difficult questions, to challenge, to “convince, rebuke and exhort” as St Paul advises Timothy. And so he clarified for the Church that this was a time of choosing.
Do we choose to be “self-sufficient”? Do we recognize that “by ourselves we flounder”? “Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation,” the Holy Father preached. The deepest reality of the pandemic is to remind us that we cannot save ourselves. The soul, troubled and anxious in the midst of peril and suffering, does not need a confirmation that this is a vale of tears. That is evident. He needs instead to be shown Jesus, always present, who now asks: Why are you afraid?
The master director insists, gently but firmly, that fear is not the Christian response to a pandemic. Fear must give way to faith and hope. Or as St John writes: “Perfect love casts out fear.”
The same Jesus who challenges our faithless fear commands that fear to be gone. And that is where Pope Francis concluded: “Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’.”