A Solitary Figure in St. Peter’s Square

A Solitary Figure in St. Peter’s Square March 30, 2020

Yara Nardi/Pool Photo via AP

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.

Last Friday, on a late afternoon in Lent — a Lenten season Catholics will remember for many years — the white-robed figure of Pope Francis, unaccompanied, silently crossed a rainy, deserted St. Peter’s Square to approach a raised dais set in front of the cathedral entrance. The scene was haunting, as were his opening words quoted above, almost invoking the beginning of Dante’s Inferno when the pilgrim finds himself lost in a dark forest.

He came to deliver a type of message usually reserved for a new pope, or for the feasts of Christmas or Easter — an Urbi et Orbi meditation, meaning in Latin, “to the City (of Rome) and to the world.” The nation of Italy, in particular, was watching the extraordinary emptiness of this great square on a day preceded by a new 24-hour record: 969 deaths.

His message was about calming the storm in our own hearts, drawing on the story in the Gospel of Mark when the disciples become frightened at sea and ask Jesus whether he cares about them in their moment of danger.

Francis commented on how storms unexpectedly reveal our vulnerability amidst all our false and superfluous certainties. What is also revealed, he adds further, is “that blessed common belonging of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”

He talked about 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,” citing the doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order services, volunteers, priests, religious men and women, “and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”

The pope walked slowly and took the supporting arm of a priest Friday afternoon in order to climb the final steps to the dais from which he spoke. He appeared more frail than usual and yet his energy and vision for the coming Church is still great.

As an example, if you have not read about his “four dreams” (social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial) in the recent and beautiful papal exhortation Querida Amazonia, you should do so, and then watch papal biographer Austen Ivereigh’s webinar comments on the document. Amidst the storm, we need such dreams.

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