Last Friday, Pope Francis marked the seventh anniversary of his election. The occasion marked a new and wholly unexpected phase of his pontificate: that of the world’s most visible spiritual leader at a time of global crisis.
Unlike other prominent figures, Francis was quick to grasp the seriousness of the rapid spread of the coronavirus from China to the Western world. He swiftly adapted his leadership style as the Italian authorities insisted on previously unthinkable measures such as the countrywide suspension of Masses. With millions of people confined indefinitely to their homes, the Pope began to broadcast his morning Masses live from his residence at the Vatican, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, via the internet and on channels such as EWTN.
This was an inspired decision that has brought consolation to countless people in a time of fear and uncertainty. Previously the Vatican had only released snippets from his daily Masses. The summaries of his homilies were often confusing. Now we see why: his sermons need to be seen and heard in full to be appreciated. He may not speak in polished sentences, but he is a powerful preacher who is able simultaneously to comfort and challenge his listeners.
Francis realises that, above all, he needs to remain visible in these disturbing days, as the death toll from the virus rises in Italy and elsewhere in the developed world. So on Sunday, he took to the empty streets of Rome on a pilgrimage to the city’s churches. The image of the 83-year-old Pope walking down one of Rome’s main shopping streets with no one around him except a few security guards will long live in the memory.
His pilgrimage will have raised the spirits of Romans trapped for the foreseeable future inside their homes. At the Basilica of St Mary Major, he prayed for an end to the virus before the icon known as Salus Populi Romani (Protectress and Health of the Roman People). Then he walked roughly half a mile to the Church of San Marcello al Corso, where he prayed beneath a wonder-working crucifix, which was carried in procession through Rome’s streets during a plague in 1522.
Through gestures such as these, Francis is stirring up popular piety which, time and again in history, has helped Christian peoples to overcome adversity.
The Pope is not the only Catholic leader to find new ways of ministering at a time of crisis. In his Angelus address on Sunday, Francis praised priests in Lombardy, Italy’s worst-affected region. “I want to pray for all of the priests, the creativity of priests,” he said, “who think of a thousand ways to be with the people so that the people don’t feel alone.” That creativity is not limited to Italy. In Poland, for example, the bishops have increased the number of Masses celebrated as public gatherings are limited to 50 people. They have also permitted Communion in the hand – a practice hitherto discouraged by the Polish Church.
Although the Church has adapted nimbly to these strange new circumstances, we should not underestimate the challenges that remain. Our priority in the coming weeks must be to find ways to give the sacraments to those in desperate need of them. We must also reach out to our isolated neighbours, especially the elderly, offering them both practical help and spiritual comfort. Those parts of the world with Catholic hospital systems must offer the best possible care despite limited resources.
On Sunday, Crux reported on a leaked letter to priests written by Mgr Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, the Pope’s personal secretary.
“In the epidemic of fear that we are all living due to the coronavirus pandemic, we risk behaving more like wage-earners than as pastors,” he wrote. “I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need. May it never be said: ‘I won’t go to a church that didn’t come to me when I was in need.’ ”
These chilling words reveal the exceptionally high stakes of the worldwide coronavirus crisis.
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