Last Friday Pope Francis broke with Papal convention (Not for the first time!) and did something quite beautiful and emotional. Rather than waiting until Easter to deliver his ‘Urbi er Orbi’, ‘message to the city and the world’, he added an extra one so that he could speak to the whole world, so that he could tend to the flock of Christ. As we know, Italy has been hurt immensely by Covid-19, and for some weeks the epicentre of the Roman Catholic Church has been eerily empty. It was with this backdrop upon which Pope Francis chose to speak to the Church, to bless us all and use the well-known story of the disciples scared in the boat (Mark 4:36-41) as a focus for understanding our faith in these times. Below is an account of the Pope’s actions and meditation from Fr Lou Meiman who is able to explain the significance of the event much better than I ever could.
He walked alone across the empty piazza of St Peter’s, wearing the simple “house cassock” that he favours, through the rain. He did not carry an umbrella. That image alone hit me with the seriousness of the prayer that Pope Francis was about to begin. To pray for the world as he invited the world to pray, on that spot where he says mass and speaks to tens of thousands, alone except for a single aid to help him up the steps. It is an image of these days we share, apart. But Pope Francis was not entirely alone in the rain.
To the right, at the foot of one of the great columns of the facade, the icon of “Our Lady, Help of the Roman People,” protected from the rain in a plain plexiglass shrine. It almost never leaves the church of St Mary Major, dedicated in AD 434. Except for the time when Pope St Gregory the Great carried her through the streets of Rome in 593, praying for the end of a great plague, an event that earned the icon the title she has born for almost 1500 years since. To the left, a crucifix at the foot of the other column flanking the entrance. It survived a fire at the church of St Marcello on the Corso in 1519. Three years later, during a great plague it was carried from the rebuilt church through the streets of Rome to St Peter’s. The 600-year-old wooden figure of the crucified stood in the rain, unprotected. It was between these two ancient images that Francis led the world in a simple prayer.
The reading of the account of the Stilling of the Storm in Mark 4:36-41 (read by a lay person), words of reflection from the pope, walking through the rain again to pray before each of the two ancient images, kissing the feet of the crucified Christ. And then into the portico, the “front porch” of St Peter’s, where the Eucharist was brought to a temporary altar, while the choir inside the church sang Parce, Domine, “Spare Lord, spare your people.” There Francis was joined in silent prayer by just a few of the residents of the Vatican.
And then, while St Peter’s rang every bell it had to let the people of Rome know what was happening, Francis took the monstrance containing the Eucharist in his hands, walked out to the steps, and blessed “Urbi et Orbi.” That blessing, of “The City and The World,” is reserved for two occasions, Christmas Day and Easter Day. It is normally delivered from the pope’s window in the Vatican apartments, using his raised hand. Francis chose this Friday of Lent to bless the world with the True Presence of Christ, from the steps of St Peter’s, in the rain.
There is an ancient tradition of the popes to visit a different church in Rome each day of Lent and the Easter Octave. They are known as Station Churches. Today’s designated church is San Eusebio, the church of the Roman martyr Eusebius. But I noticed on the papal calendar the designation today was changed to “Statio Orbi.” Today, the pope’s church was not San Eusebio, nor even San Pietro where he stood, it was the world. (Fr Lou Meiman, 27th March 2020).
The video footage and full text of Pope Francis’ hopeful message can be found the Vatican website, the link is provided here – http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/events/event.dir.html/content/vaticanevents/en/2020/3/27/uniti-in-preghiera.html. I would urge you to watch some or all of the footage which moved so many (including myself) to tears, and read how Pope Francis uses the calming of the storm as a way that God speaks to us. I’ve taken a few of the quotes that really stood out to share with you.
“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realised 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 realised that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
“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 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.”
Mr M Robinson