During his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing delivered today, March 27, Pope Francis stood facing a nearly-empty St. Peter’s Square, indicative of the strange and unprecedented situation we find our world in during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our streets and businesses are, similarly, largely vacant, void of life and activity, as we have retreated to our homes to try and stifle the spread of the deadly virus.
The Holy Father, however, offered hope to the world during the period of scripture, petition, and adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as prayers before a miraculous crucifix and an act of entrusting the world to the care and protection of our Blessed Mother. The hour of prayer concluded with the Urbi et Orbi blessing, Latin for ‘to the city and the world,’ which is ordinarily given only at Christmas and Easter and upon the election of a new pope as his first blessing. The blessing carried with it the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence for the faithful who participated by viewing the service through the media or online.
The Holy Father compared the anxiety that many are experiencing about the virus to the disciples’ fear in the fourth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel, when Jesus was asleep in the boat as a storm came up, frightening them and causing them to worry and doubt. “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,” he said. The analogy of the boat brings to mind the Church, separated by distance, but unified in mind and spirit and united in prayer and petition for an end to the pandemic and for peace and health for all. In this time of uncertainty, we are like the disciples, fearful and afraid, and we are apart, yet together in the Body of Christ. He is our head, guiding and steering this vessel, the Church, even during the turbulent storms of life when they come.
Perhaps the most significant and resounding line in the gospel passage is Jesus’ question to his disciples that he addresses to us as well, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (v. 40). The Holy Father emphasized these words and how Jesus directs them to us, in the situation we face today. He continued, “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!”.
“Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation,” Pope Francis declared. The Holy Father’s words should call us to repentance and encourage us to recognize the ways we have failed to follow the gospel values in our own lives. During this period of Lent, when we are facing a global pandemic which affects us all, we are given the opportunity to humbly admit our faults and failings and allow our hearts to be converted and recommitted to Jesus. We remember the words of Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance, which declares, “a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn,” and we have hope that the Lord will hear our prayers if they are offered humbly and sincerely. Pope Francis reminded us that this is “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.”
The Holy Father encouraged us to “invite Jesus into the boats of our lives,” and to “hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them.” He reminded us that, “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.”
He also emphasized the call to have hope in these desperate and often desolate times and to remember the Easter promise that, “He is risen and is living by our side.” He concluded his remarks with these words of petition: