Pope’s special Urbi et Orbi blessing: ‘God turns everything to our good’

By Devin Watkins

Pope Francis held the special Urbi et Orbi on Friday from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Usually a colorful event reserved only for Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, this extraordinary blessing was held in keeping with the gravity of the current global situation, as more than half of the world’s population is confined to their homes to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Standing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square with a steady rain falling, Pope Francis spoke to the world through all the means of modern communication: Facebook, YouTube, TV, and radio.  He imparted his Apostolic Blessing, offering everyone the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence.

All in the same boat

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all on the same boat, said Pope Francis, and so we call out to Jesus. The disciples ask Him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”

The Pope said these words would have shaken Jesus, “because He, more than anyone, cares about us.”

The storm, said the Pope, exposes “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules” and lays bare “all those attempts to anesthetize ourselves”.

What is revealed, he said, is “our belonging as brothers and sisters”, our common humanity.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

Pope Francis then picked up the thread of Jesus’ question: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

He said we have all gone ahead “at breakneck speed”, ignoring the wars, injustice, and cries of the poor and our ailing planet. “We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”

** Below Pope at Urbi et orbi: Full text of his meditation

When evening had come” (Mk 4:35). The Gospel passage we have just heard begins like this. 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.

It is easy to recognize ourselves in this story. What is harder to understand is Jesus’ attitude. While his disciples are quite naturally alarmed and desperate, he stands in the stern, in the part of the boat that sinks first. And what does he do? In spite of the tempest, he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father; this is the only time in the Gospels we see Jesus sleeping. When he wakes up, after calming the wind and the waters, he turns to the disciples in a reproaching voice: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (v. 40).

Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.

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.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Lord, your word this evening strikes us and regards us, all of us. In this world, that you love more than we do, 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. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” 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!”, “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. 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. 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.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.

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 Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side. The Lord asks us from his cross to rediscover the life that awaits us, to look towards those who look to us, to strengthen, recognize and foster the grace that lives within us. Let us not quench the wavering flame (cf. Is 42:3) that never falters, and let us allow hope to be rekindled.

Embracing his 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. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity. By his cross we have been saved in order to embrace hope and let it strengthen and sustain all measures and all possible avenues for helping us protect ourselves and others. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, 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. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).

Pope Francis’ special Urbi et orbi blessing

Massimo Faggioli United States March 31, 2020 in La Croix


Pope Francis, an unusual Urbi et Orbi and liturgy in the time of pandemic

Pope Francis presided over a moment of prayer in front of the deserted square in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican on 27 March. (Photo: AFP)

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing all of us to relativize and prioritize. This is also true for the Catholic Church, or at least it should.  The forced cessation of the Church’s public activities – in some countries, it will last well beyond Easter – brings up the importance of the theological concept of “Christianity as style”.

Christoph Theobald, a French-German Jesuit, has been developing this idea over the last few years. He published his latest thoughts on it in a long essay that appeared in the Italian Catholic monthly Il Regno, well before the coronavirus emergency.

‘The saints next door’

Christianity as style during the current pandemic, means rediscovering an elementary, basic faith that does not depend on external constructs. This is a key to understanding the importance of Pope Francis’ pontificate at this tragic moment for the world and the Church.

The Jesuit pope’s emphasis on discernment as an engine of interior mobility is even richer now when external mobility is not possible. Theobald mentions his exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, which evokes the image of “the saints next door”.

“Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence,” Francis writes in that 2018 text.

This could be a true catechesis for millions of people now be stuck at home for a number of weeks, forced to coexist with their neighbors like never before. Christianity is an event of encounter with the divine, but also with others.

A time to ponder the ‘last things’

This time of forced social distancing will likely help us rediscover the theological value of encountering Christ through our encounters with others. It is a reversal of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous dictum: “Hell is other people”.

Eschatology, or the “doctrine of the last things”, has always been very powerful in giving the right dimension to oversized ideas and institutions.

And this kind of emergency exerts an enormous pressure on all of us to ponder the last things. It also reveals the stuff certain churchmen and ecclesiastical institutions are made of.

Two styles of Church

“Style is the man” – the proverbial saying that one’s chosen style reflects one’s essential characteristics – can also be applied to Church leadership. The coronavirus emergency is showing us that there are two ways of expressing the style of the Church.

On the one hand, there’s the approach of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and of Social Sciences. In a statement on March 20 they offered “lessons for future actions and changing priorities” in the wake of the virus’ spread.

“We note with great appreciation the tremendous services currently provided by health workers and medical professionals, including virologists and others,” the academies say in the opening lines of their statement.

Not of the sacristy, but of humanity

In a similar way, the Holy See’s daily paper, L’Osservatore Romano, offered a similar approach espoused by Francis by publishing two articles in its March 29 issue on liturgy and the “domestic church”.

One of the articles suggested the possibilities of this moment.

“The domestic memorial contains a peculiar secular dimension. It does not smell of sacristy. On the contrary, it touches the foundations of our humanity,” it said.

But there has been also another style on display, and particularly because of the liturgical emergency we all are experiencing.

Looking backwards, issuing prohibitions

Uncomfortable as I am with the idea of Easter Masses celebrated without the people, I am not sure it would be a good idea to postpone Easter. But I am sure there that the Roman Curia should have a better way to convey this to the Catholic faithful.

It was unseemly that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) should choose to publish decrees on the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite on March 25, in the middle of the pandemic.  But, at the same time, it indicated the contradiction between Francis and the liturgical agenda of the pre-existing Vatican establishment.  Then there was the style of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS), which was strictly in terms of prohibitions and limits.

It reminded me of when China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs decreed in 2007 that all the reincarnations of tulkus of Tibetan Buddhism must get government approval; otherwise they are “illegal or invalid”. Involuntary humor, but truly Kafkaesque.

The pope alone

This is important in order to understand Pope Francis’ incredibly moving prayer on March 27 in an empty St. Peter’s Square. There was the pope, alone; but also in the company of the faith and his people.

The style of that intense Urbi et Orbi was also – indirectly, but not so subtle – an indictment of other styles of leadership, included within the Church and the Vatican.

There was not only a mastery of the aesthetics of this spiritual moment, but there was also a significantly different theological reading of the pandemic.

The pope shunned any moralistic interpretations of the disease, a recurring temptation in our civilization, as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1978 book, Illness as Metaphor.

In the style of Francis there was the whole message, and it is the style of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65): the “noble simplicity” that is stressed in the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy.

The medium is the message

The Jesuit historian John O’Malley wrote in his 2008 book What Happened at Vatican II  that the council’s “style of discourse was the medium that conveyed the message”, and that “the style is thus values-expressive”.

And as Theobald pointed out, the blind spots of the theology of Vatican II (celebrated almost sixty years ago) can be filled with the insights coming from the style of Vatican II.

Francis’ embrace of the whole world would be unthinkable without the council’s theology of the Church in the modern world, where the institutional loneliness of the pope within the Church and the distinctiveness of Catholic ecclesiology are understood in a fundamental solidarity with the one human family.

A Church of paradoxes

Catholicism is full of paradoxes. The pope alone in St. Peter’s Square, praying in front of a basilica that was built, in part, with the dirty money of indulgences; and yet here he is offering an indulgence to the people through his Urbi et Orbi blessing.

As I wrote to my students, it’s the same Church of the sex abuse crisis that we are studying in our course. Francis is evidently aware of the contradictions and paradoxes, as we have seen in the last seven years.

It is particularly evident in his way of not letting the Roman Curia define his ministry. And we shall see what sort of impact the pandemic and the recession will have on his plans to reform the Curia.

The contrast between Francis and the ecclesiastical status quo is not just a paradox. It is also a real and problematic contradiction.  For one thing, it strongly contradicts the ongoing pandemic-induced revanche of liturgical traditionalism, with phenomena of clerical solipsism sometimes accompanied by the re-emergence of semi-magical rituals for local media consumption.

Solidarity, not triumphalism or exclusivism

It is true that it is easier for the pope than for the bishops and priests who have to keep their local churches afloat, both spiritually and financially. Francis has at its disposal the formidable apparatus and scenery of the Vatican to convey the message of communion in the Church and with the world.

But his style is also a message to the institutional Church to overcome the temptation of using this moment as an opportunity to go back to a theology and a liturgy shaped by triumphalism and exclusivism, instead of solidarity. Understanding the importance of style as a Church also means, in this particular moment, the capability of sustaining ourselves spiritually without the usual institutional supports.

At the very least, we should not be burdened with additional mortifications.

This can be a disaster or it can be an opportunity for the Church to rethink its pastoral and missionary activity. The Gospel is an ecclesial presence – in the sense of being relational – and this moment can help rebuild the credibility of the Church.

When the public, liturgical activity of the Church is reduced to a minimum (or to nothing), we must carefully discern and detect the discreet signs of the Spirit in our daily lives in lockdown.

It’s more a matter of dos than of don’ts.

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