ROME – As both the United States and Europe face resurgences of the coronavirus pandemic and are moving towards new lockdowns in many places, it’s a good time to look back at the experience of the first wave in the spring and take stock of lessons learned.
In Catholic terms, the issues back then – which, in various forms, are coming to the fore again now – break down in three broad categories: Church/state relations and religious freedom; economic, social and political fallout; and pastoral considerations.
Symbolically, a key papal moment over the past few months captures the challenges inherent in each.
During the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns, public celebration of the Mass was suspended virtually every place, triggering fierce debate within the Catholic world about going along with those government decrees.
Critics argued that it was poor judgment for the Church to capitulate to the notion that worship is not an “essential public service,” and voiced alarm over the long-term consequences of sending the signal that physically going to Mass isn’t really necessary. That concern was even sounded by a secretary to Pope Francis, Father Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, writing to priest friends in Rome on March 13.
“I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need,” Gaid wrote.
Gaid was rotated out of his position in August.
The key papal moment in this sense came April 28, which was about 36 hours after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced plans for a gradual easing of the first coronavirus restrictions in the country. When Conte’s announcement did not include any mention of lifting the suspension of public Mass, the Italian bishops conference swiftly issued a testy statement, and during the next 24 hours it appeared some Italian bishops were prepared to launch a legal battle on religious freedom grounds.
All that came screeching to a halt when Pope Francis pronounced these words during his livestreamed daily Mass the next morning: “In these days in which we are starting to have regulations to come out of quarantine, let us pray to the Lord that he gives his people, all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience to the regulations so that the pandemic does not return.”
That immediately took the wind out of the sails of any pushback from the Italian bishops, and it set a tone across Europe. It’s instructive that both in France and Germany, high court cases that either repealed or modified worship bans weren’t filed by the Catholic bishops – in France, it was a coalition of right-wing political forces and traditionalist Catholics; in Germany, it was a Muslim association.
Shortly thereafter, Conte lifted the suspension on Mass, and so far there’s been no talk of reimposing it, even as several regions of Italy enter a new lockdown due to soaring infection rates.
A different approach is being taken in the US, where the Diocese of Brooklyn has filed a petition with the Supreme Court to block an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself a Catholic, limiting the number of people who can attend religious services. Similar appeals have been rejected by lower courts, but some legal observers believe that with the recent addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the court.
In the weeks to come, Church leaders again will face hard choices about the extent to which they comply with government restrictions for the sake of public health or defy them in the name of religious freedom. In France, for example, where the government has again decreed a suspension of public worship until at least Dec. 1, some Catholics are pressing the bishops to resist, even launching the hashtag #oursoulsmatter on social media.
For the moment, there’s no indication that Francis’s broad preference for compliance has changed, but also no sense the Vatican will override the judgment of bishops and pastors in other parts of the world.
Economic, social and political fallout
The key papal moment on this front clearly came on Oct. 3, 2020, the vigil of the feast of St. Francis, when the pontiff traveled to Assisi in order to sign his new encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti. It amounts to the pope’s prescription for a post-COVID world, and the drama now would seem to be how effective his team proves to be in making it real.
In essence, Francis argued for a massive global reset, saying the pandemic exposed the world’s “false securities.”
“Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident,” he said. “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”
Throughout the document, Pope Francis breaks down what he sees as wrong with global politics and the current economic system. He critiques populism, nationalism, and liberalism (along with its economic corollary in free-market capitalism.) He urges multilateral efforts to face global problems, and calls for policies that prioritize the most vulnerable, including migrants and refugees.
He also issues a searing critique of today’s hyper-polarized and trigger-happy social media culture, suggesting fraternity as a remedy to the toxicity. He appeals for women’s rights and equality, greater care of the environment, defense of the elderly and an end to racism as well as the violent protests recent episodes have provoked.
All in all, Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti lays out a vision for how the shock of the pandemic could create the conditions for social change that otherwise might be seen as too sweeping or radical.
It remains to be seen whether he’ll have much luck promoting that agenda, though with the transition to President-elect Joe Biden in the US, the pope may at least find a partner who instincts are a bit more in sync with his own.
On the pastoral and spiritual level, no moment better captured the essence of the challenges created by the coronavirus than March 27, 6:00 p.m. Rome time, in St. Peter’s Square.
It was then that Pope Francis delivered perhaps the most extraordinary blessing in the long history of the papacy, offering a surprise benediction Urbi et Orbi – “To the City and the World” – in the midst of the agony of the pandemic.
The setting was dramatic indeed: Pope Francis standing alone in that usually overflowing square, flanked by the images of Maria Salus Populi Romani and the miraculous crucifix of San Marcello, his voice carrying out through the rain to an eerily silent city, punctuated only by the harrowing sound of ambulance sirens passing by.
The pope’s language 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, which 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.”
“We’ve become aware that we’re all in the same boat,” the pope said, “all fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and necessary, all called to remain together, all needing to comfort each other in turn.”
Italians may remain divided about the policy response to the pandemic, with some urging tighter restrictions and others – including the waiters, cooks, hotel workers, beauticians and barbers, and others who fear lost earnings and family hardships – bitterly arguing that the burden of keeping the public safe shouldn’t fall disproportionately on them.
Yet they’re united in recalling that March 27 moment as the iconic image of the pandemic, the one time when they all felt united in a common sense of dependence on something bigger than themselves.
In a thousand different ways, bishops, pastors, religious and lay Catholics alike will be challenged over the weeks to come to create their own smaller-scale Urbi et Orbi moments, grasping what people are feeling and offering them consolation in a way that breaks through the fear and the noise.
One can’t just photocopy what Francis did, of course, but one can’t ignore the power of it either. Frankly nothing else that’s happened since the pandemic erupted probably better illustrated why the religious and spiritual contribution is, arguably, “essential” after all.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.