ROME – Pope Francis has often spoken of silence as both a spiritual virtue and a political vice, yet both of these have been displayed, if not employed, by the Vatican during the global COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
During his visit to the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau as part of his July 2016 visit to Poland for World Youth Day, Francis said nothing, but sat in silence contemplating the horrors that happened inside those walls.
He later spoke of his decision not to give a speech, saying silence “was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been. In that silence I listened: I felt the presence of all the souls who passed through that place; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God, which a few holy souls were able to bring even into that abyss.”
Retired German Pope Benedict XVI also spoke of silence during his visit to the camps in 2006, saying, “In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?”
Pope Francis himself drew on this silence again during this year’s Holy Week liturgies at the Vatican, which were all livestreamed without faithful due to Italy’s coronavirus lockdown.
During April 10 Via Crucis in a nearly deserted St. Peter’s Square, he offered no prayer to close the event, as he usually does when it is held at the Colosseum. Instead, after listening to reflections written by inmates of a Padua prison, he bowed his head and prayed in silence before closing the event with his blessing.
He also offered no homily during his Easter morning Mass. While in recent years he has made a habit of giving an off-the-cuff homily during Easter Mass, this year he opted to sit in silent reflection, offering his only words during the Urbi et Orbi blessing afterward.
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Yet in addition to the prayerful, spiritual silence displayed in these moments, Francis has also often condemned a different silence, one that operates in the political field, often condemning political leaders for refusing to speak out on key global topics such as migration, accusing them of being complicit in the death of thousands in the Mediterranean because of their silence on the issue.
In a Nov. 2, 2018, message to participants in the World Social Forum on Migrations, the pope said migrants, refugees and displaced people are often “ignored, exploited, violated and abused through the guilty silence of many.” Namely, political leaders who, instead of enacting policies that protect people on the move, tend to look the other way.
However, despite his chastisement of political inaction on the refugee front, Pope Francis himself in recent weeks has employed this type of political silence on another sensitive foreign policy issue the Vatican faces, which is China and Taiwan.
Both mainland China and Taiwan have offered donations to Italy and the Vatican to help keep sanitary supplies in stock during the coronavirus outbreak, but the Vatican so far has only made a point of going public with its gratitude to the People’s Republic of China.
As Italy began seeing a massive spike in cases in mid-March, China sent specialist doctors and medical equipment to Italy to help doctors and healthcare workers get on top of the outbreak.
The Red Cross Society of China and the China-based Catholic Hebei Jinde Charities Foundation donated health supplies to the Vatican Pharmacy, including facial masks, to support patients infected with COVID-19.
In an April 9 statement, the Vatican thanked China for its donations, the Vatican called the gifts an expression of “the solidarity of the Chinese people and of Catholic communities (in China) toward those involved in assisting people affected by COVID-19 and in the prevention of the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.”
“The Holy See appreciates the generous gesture and expresses gratitude to the bishops, Catholic faithful, institutions and all other Chinese citizens for this humanitarian initiative, assuring them of the esteem and prayers of the Holy Father.”
Taiwan has also offered donations of food and medical supplies to the pope’s charities and several religious institutes around Rome.
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On April 14 the Taiwan Embassy to the Holy See issued a statement saying they had donated an additional 280,000 medical masks to the Vatican, the Italian bishops, Italian hospitals and various religious institutes in Italy.
“It is a sign of closeness to Pope Francis and to the Italian people, but also a help to the Italian church, which is very committed in accompanying the sick and the most needy who suffer from the coronavirus,” said Taiwanese Ambassador to the Holy See Matthew Lee handing over the donation.
The donation was handed over April 14 to Monsignor Stefano Russo, Secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, and Father Donato Cauzzo, who represented the Camillian Ministers of the Sick religious order, as well as several others who were there representing recipients of the masks.
Masks were also to the Vatican pharmacy, three Roman hospitals – Gemelli, the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu children’s hospital, and the Bio-Medical University Hospital – as well as various religious and healthcare structures in northern Italy, which is at the heart of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.
“Taiwan is one of the few countries that has been successful in fighting this virus,” Lee said, saying this was possible “because the government reacted quickly, taking all necessary measures such as giving tests to the entire population and the mandatory use of masks.”
Noting that Taiwan was heavily impacted by the SARS epidemic in 2003, he said the experience helped Taiwan get a handle on COVID-19 at the beginning.
“This donation to the Vatican,” he said, “is a concrete sign of sharing the efficiency of the manufacture of Taiwanese masks and the experience gained in the field in recent years in the fight against viruses.”
However, the Vatican has so far refrained from making any public statements of gratitude for Taiwan’s donations, as it did for China, despite being Taiwan’s sole diplomatic allay in Europe, sending a strong signal of where the Vatican’s interests lie.
The Vatican recognizes Taiwan as the “Republic of China” – as do the other 14 countries that keep diplomatic ties with the island – under the “One China” policy that officially sees Beijing and Taipei as both claiming to be the legitimate government of China. Mainland China insists Taiwan is a Chinese province and has a policy of diplomatically isolating the Taiwanese.
It has long been known that the Vatican under Pope Francis desperately wants formal diplomatic ties with China, and its 2018 secret agreement with China on the appointment of bishops was interpreted by many as a step in this direction.
Given the Vatican’s ongoing courtship with mainland China in recent years, Taiwan likely won’t rock the boat by asking for public recognition, but the Vatican’s silence toward them, considering their own coronavirus offerings, is nothing short of deafening.
If there is one thing Vatican and the pope have shown during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s that both the spiritual silence of being lost for words in contemplating the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the political silence in key and strategic moments, can both speak louder than words.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen