ROME – Twenty years from now, if you were to ask Italians to think back about what images stuck in their minds from the coronavirus, it’s a good bet that after Friday night, many would give the same answer.
“Papa Francesco standing alone in St. Peter’s Square, under the rain, praying for it to end,” they’d likely say.
In one fell swoop Friday night, Francis not only delivered what seems destined to become the most iconic image of the pandemic, he effectively shut down what had been a mounting undercurrent of criticism about the supposed “invisibility” and “silence” of the Church.
The pontiff prayed before images of Maria, Salus Populis Romani, and the crucifix from the Roman church of San Marcello, both credited with protecting the city in times of plague. He also offered an Urbi et Orbi blessing, traditionally delivered only after a papal election and on Christmas and Easter, accompanied by a plenary indulgence.
“From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the world, may the blessing of God, like a consoling embrace, descend upon you,” the pope said.
Aldo, Grasso, Italy’s best-known historian and critic of television, described the moment this way in a piece for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record.
“One day we’ll remember these sad times we’re living with many other images: the daily count of the dead, the lines at the hospitals, the frantic challenge to an invisible enemy,” he wrote. “But the prayer for the end of the pandemic, the solemn Urbi et Orbi blessing, the solitude of the pope, will end up as one of those decisive moments in which television captures our history, our anguish, in real time.”
“The wind that blew the pages of the Gospels during the funeral of John Paul II, or the helicopter ride of Pope Benedict when he resigned, both moved us, but they’re nothing in comparison to the shock of seeing the empty square surrounded by the colonnade of Bernini,” Grasso said.
The imagery was undeniably arresting.
For those who live in Italy, we’re accustomed to seeing St. Peter’s Square full. Popes are magnets for humanity, both the faithful and the merely curious. Moreover, the Roman economy is dependent on the multitudes who come to catch a glimpse of the pope and then have a meal, buy some souvenirs, get back on their chartered bus or call a cab and head back to their hotels.
Romans are accustomed to evaluating the success of any given papacy largely by the size and enthusiasm of crowds that pope manages to draw.
Thus to see the square barren, with only the Pope in white striding alone towards the sagrato, the platform at the top of the stairs that lead to the main entrance of the basilica, was jarring to the popular imagination in a way virtually nothing else could have been.
To add to the ethereal mood, it was twilight when Francis began and dark by the time he finished, and it was raining steadily.
Here’s how Mario Ajello, a well-known TV and newspaper journalist in Italy, put it in the Roman paper Il Messaggero.
“That emptiness,” Ajello said, “expressed everything about this terrible moment.”
The pope’s language Friday also seemed to give voice to the national mood. Translation doesn’t quite do it justice, straining to capture the poetry of the Italian original, but probably the most oft-cited phrasing came near the beginning.
“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,” the pope said.
“We feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost.”
The heart of Francis’s argument was that the disciples too felt fear, and the antidote lies in Christ and the promise of the resurrection as Easter approaches. It was a message of hope, directed especially at Italians who watched the prayer in vast numbers knowing the country had set a new record for deaths in the previous 24 hours, losing an astonishing 969 people in one day.
It wasn’t just journalists who were impressed. A Catholic friend in Milan, the epicenter of Italy’s nightmare, had groused a couple of days ago that he was suffering more from the Church’s invisibility and silence than from the inability to get to Mass. After Friday, his tone changed.
“Last night,” he said simply, “we finally got something up to our needs.”
Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group for members of a daily 6:00 p.m. flashmob in our Roman neighborhood lit up with positive reaction, even among people who aren’t believers.
Such acclaim comes at a time when the Church had been facing blowback.
Newspaper coverage here has unfavorably contrasted financial contributions by the Italian bishops to relief efforts with those of groups such as Italy’s Buddhists and Evangelicals, who’ve donated roughly 20 percent of the income they receive from the state-collected “church tax.” At the grassroots, many Catholics have complained about suspended Masses and closed churches, wondering why the Church doesn’t consider itself an “essential service” akin to grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and even tobacco shops, all of which have been defined as indispensable by the government and thus allowed to remain open.
Recently, the country’s official Catholic media launched a counter-offensive. Avvenire, the officical newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, ran a lead story titled, “Look at all the help the Italian church is putting in the field,” while Vatican News ran a similar piece titled, “What’s the Church doing in the time of coronavirus?”
They featured stories such as the Oblate Sisters of Avellino and the Benedictine Sisters of Mercogliano, both orders which have taken it upon themselves to make medical masks to compensate for nationwide shortages, so far producing more than 100,000 and donating them to the citizenry. They also recounted what’s happening in the devastated Diocese of Bergamo, which has opened its seminary to make 50 rooms available for doctors and nurses working around the clock to fight the virus, and told the story of Father Fausto Resmini, a prison chaplain famed for his work among people at the margins, who died of the coronavirus on March 23 after likely contracting it ministering to prisoners.
Bishop Angelo Raffaele Panzetta of Crotone-Santa Severina argued that just because people don’t hear what the Church is doing doesn’t mean it’s inert.
“It’s action that’s often hidden, in keeping with the spirit of the Gospels,” Panzetta said. “The pope and the Church don’t need PR campaigns or to end up in the newspapers all the time.”
(The irony that Panzetta was speaking as part of what amounted to a PR campaign wasn’t lost on many commentators.)
Yet his point was nonetheless valid, and to accuse “the Church” of being AWOL is patently inaccurate. Still, it’s also true that as the crisis has unfolded, leadership here has come far more from medical and political figures, even pop culture celebrities and athletes, than it has from either the bishops or the Vatican.
Until, that is, Friday night – when a pope all by himself, in an empty square accompanied only by the sounds of rain and ambulance sirens, somehow found a way to stir a country’s soul.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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