While the Pope gives an Urbi et Orbi blessing twice a year, this one was widely shared, partially because unlike the ordinary ones, it was given during a time that was convenient for most people (at least Canadians). Or, some were at home with nothing to do or simply could not sleep.
Unlike the ordinary Urbi et Orbi blessings the Pope gives at Christmas and Easter, not a lot of people knew what to expect at this extraordinary Urbi et Orbi. Some may have thought the Pope was going to go out in pontifical regalia, or in Pope Francis’ case, at least a nicely embroidered stole, a large processional cross leading the way. However, March 27’s Urbi et Orbi began with none of that solemnity. I remember vividly, and I am sure many do, the livestream began with Pope Francis without aides, security guards, and without umbrella, walking across St. Peter’s Square alone in the rain – the first time I ever saw that.
Once the Pope reached the stairs of the stage usually used for Papal Audiences and Papal Masses in the usually full St. Peter’s Square, no photographers were seen lining up the barricades with their blinding flash cameras. Rather, Msgr. Guido Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies was at the steps of the stage, and offered his arm to assist the Pope up the steps. Without stole, and without any form of solemnity, the Pope went to his place and said the opening prayer.
The Liturgy of the Word began with a lector reading Mark 4:35-41, the story of Jesus calming the storm. The Gospel concluded, and Pope Francis gave a short meditation. Looking out to an unusually empty St. Peter’s Square, but still speaking on microphone for the whole world to hear, he began the meditation, quoting, “When evening had come.” (Mk 4:35) “Where was he going?” I thought… but it made sense as the Pope continued:
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.
So true… Pope Francis began the meditation with something not theological, but with something that concretely connects to the reality of the world today – something very typical of Pope Francis’ reflections and homilies. However, this made me relate to the importance of governmental public health guidelines and precautions, as he said:
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.emphasis added
Pope Francis really spoke to us about the reality of this pandemic. We can all go on thinking about ourselves. This thing called “social distancing” that the governments all over the world keeps urging people to do is something collective we need to do. We can go on thinking about ourselves, but if so, this pandemic and its effects will be prolonged. We need to act as a team to get through these times. Then on top of that, we have people who need our help to get through these times, whether it be someone who is elderly, vulnerable… we need each other’s helping hands to get through these hard times. It is not the time to be selfish.
But nothing struck me more than this specific part of the meditation:
“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!”.
Wow… what was that? Before this pandemic, some people thought that we were powerful. All the tools of science and healthcare equipment and facilities were suited for anything. Yet, when this little virus came along, people were scrambling, and felt sense of defeat against this. It was at that moment that we, as a world, realized that as human beings, we have limits. It is then that we must turn to the mercy and love of God. When the churches have been closed to the public, that is when we see within ourselves that we took the gifts that the Lord has given us for granted and we thirst for Him, especially sacramentally.
“Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!” I remember hearing the actual words of Pope Francis along with the interpreter’s translation of that line afterwards. I remember clearly how the Pope’s cry echoed throughout the empty square as the camera showed a fragment of the evening sky nearing night. I could picture how the apostles cried “Wake up, Lord!”, nearly 2000 years ago in that boat on that stormy sea. That is the world today – in the same boat as the apostles 2000 years later.
“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.
“Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith.” To tell you the truth, when Lent began this year, I had many fears of this virus. Going through U of T St. George Campus everyday, seeing the number of people with masks on increasing everyday, I was a little anxious, fearing that this virus was going to get to me, to my family, to my friends. But Pope Francis reminded me that Jesus calls us to faith at this time. While I have strived to be a faithful Catholic throughout most of my life, I honestly have to say, things like this scare me to some degree. What will tomorrow bring?
That is why this Lent has been so meaningful to me. I recently completed reading Fr. Casey Cole, OFM’s book Let Go and I learned of many things that I need to fix up, things I literally need to let go in order to be a better Catholic. I question, especially during these times if my faith is merely outward piety, but hollow in terms of a sincere faith in Jesus? I don’t know if anybody else have had similar thoughts. That is why I am holding more to prayer, spiritual reading and to the companionship of my brothers and sisters because I know together we can strengthen each other’s faith.
“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.
This is the point where the Pope’ meditation gets more optimistic. Things will only get brighter when we recognize that we are not perfect but rather, sinners. It is only then that faith can begin because when we recognize that we are sinners, we recognize that we need help, we need to place out trust in the Lord and allow God to take an active part in our lives. God never forces Himself upon us ever. We must be open to God. We place our trust in God, knowing that we are sinners, knowing God will “deliver us from evil” as long as we surrender ourselves to Him. God only wants the best for his children and therefore, what he provides for us is always good because God Himself is good.
Embracing [Jesus’] 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.
Who said following Jesus and trusting in God was easy? As these times show, it is ever so difficult to do that. That is why the act of surrendering to God is so important during these times. When we put ourselves into the hands of God, there is really nothing to be afraid. It is when we seek out a sense of power, and desire of earthly possessions do we hold ourselves back from total trust and surrender to God. We need to surrender to God, and so be open to the Spirit so we can see and experience things anew, particularly in these times of spiritual turbulence.
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).
With that, Pope Francis concludes his meditation, probably, one of the most beautiful texts of his Pontificate, one that really addressed the mood of these times. Personally, it was for me something I needed to hear at the right place and time. We know that God cares for us – we have been taught that for most, a long time, especially in Catechism class. Yet, some of that stuff may seem like just words. It is in these times that we actually need to put it into practice, and it is honestly, not that easy at times, thus we need to pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” (cf. Mk 9:24)
The moments that were well captured in images circulating social media were the moments right after Pope Francis’ meditation, in which assisted by Msgr. Marini, the Holy Father prayed in front of an image of Salus Populi Romani (Mary, Protector of the Roman People), which is one of my favourite Marian images. As Pope Francis stood in silence, the cantor sung Sub tuum praesidium, one of the Church’s oldest hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which its title translates to We Fly to Your Protection. After a brief moment, Pope Francis went to pray in front of Miraculous Crucifix from the Church of San Marcello as the cantor sung the antiphon Adoramus te, Christe in which its title translates to We Adore You, O Christ. Pope Francis blessed himself upon touching the crucifix and reverently kissed it – as if kissing it in veneration of the holy cross on behalf of the whole world. Both images were venerated by Pope Francis two weeks earlier on his brief walking pilgrimage. These are symbols, which according to Vatican News, “have accompanied the people of Rome for centuries.” Most notably, the miraculous crucifix was embraced by St. John Paul II in a Penitential Liturgy at St. Peter’s Basilica a little more than 20 years ago in the Day of Pardon in the Jubilee Year 2000.
The period of Eucharistic Adoration was very prayerful. I was surprised that the Adoration was not held in the Basilica itself, but rather, in the atrium of the Basilica with a small temporary altar set up. As the Pope and Msgr. Marini vested for Adoration, the cantor sung Parce Domine, a Lenten penitential hymn in which its title translates to Spare, O Lord and its texts derives from Joel 2:17.
During Adoration, the part that I remember the most was when Pope Francis stepped out with the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. He walked out slowly, and Msgr. Marini directed him to the spot to stand to give the blessing. As the Pope raised the monstrance, the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica rung. There was a great sense of solemnity at that moment at St. Peter’s Basilica: There, in the rain, looking towards an empty square, the Vicar of Christ on earth holding Our Lord in blessing towards the whole world, wounded and struck by pain and sorrow. Though visibly an empty square, so many people were following that moment all over the world reaching out to Our Lord.
Images from www.vatican.va
I can picture that view that the Pope saw that night very well. Just over a year ago, I stood at that very spot the Pope stood to give the blessing, looking out to St. Peter’s Square. There is a sense of universality in St. Peter’s Square whether it be a packed square or empty like on the day Pope Francis presided this prayer service. That sense of universality is what the Catholic Church is all about in the very essence of its name.
We are all in this together. The whole world is hit hard by this pandemic. However, the universality of the Church is what will bring us through these tough times and the Urbi et Orbi prayer service on March 27 proved that. I cannot tell you how many pictures, posts, that appeared on my Facebook and Twitter feeds after the moment that spoke about this single event. The prayer service may not take away COVID-19 in an instant, but provides all with a sense of hope and that as a family, if we take care of each other, take a little, give a little, showing solidarity, we will turn our prayers into concrete work and that is how God works through His people in times of crisis.
Read full text of the Holy Father’s meditation here.