ROME – In a virtually unprecedented livestreamed prayer service for the end of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Pope Francis said Friday that the pandemic, which comes as Christians are marking the penitential season of Lent, is an opportunity to collectively stop and reprioritize.

Just like the blackness Jesus’s disciples saw on the boat, the pope said, “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,” Francis said, insisting that for Christians, the present moment is time to choose between “what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”

“It’s a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others,” he said.

His comments came during an extraordinary prayer service led by the pope before an empty Square from the sagrato of St. Peter’s Basilica, the platform at the top of the steps immediately in front of the façade of the church. The service included an Urbi et Orbi blessing, “to the city and the world,” usually offered by popes only at Christmas and Easter.

The blessing comes with a plenary indulgence, meaning the full pardon of the temporal consequences of sin, subject to conditions laid out by the Vatican.

Continuing with the image of the storm, Francis said life’s trials, including major crises such as the coronavirus, expose the “superfluous certainties” around which many people have structured their lives and priorities, while allowing the things that strengthen and give life to communities to go stale.

“The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us,” he said.

By doing this, “we deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity,” he said, noting that much of humanity has run forward at a “breakneck speed,” greedily seeking profit and drunk in its own power.

“We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet,” the pope said, speaking directly to God.

“We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick,” he said, noting that with the arrival of a global crisis that has stopped the world in its tracks, people are again turning to God, begging him to step in and calm the waters.

The event included a reading from the Gospel of Mark, which recounted the episode of Jesus calming the sea, as well as the pope’s reflection and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Despite the rain and Italy’s tight quarantine restrictions, several people were gathered outside the gate lining St. Peter’s Square as the pope led the service.

After his address, Francis stopped to offer special prayers in front of the historic Salus Populi Romani (health of the Roman people) icon, usually housed in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, and a so-called “miraculous crucifix” from the St. Marcellus church on Via del Corso, a typically crowded shopping street.

Believed to have been painted by Saint Luke and to have arrived to Rome in the 6th century, the Salus has long been a source of recourse for Romans during times of health crisis. Tradition holds that in the late 6th century Pope Gregory I carried the icon through the streets of Rome to pray for an end to the Black Plague. Later, in 1837, Pope Gregory XVI is believed to have prayed before the image for an end to a cholera outbreak.

The wooden crucifix from St. Marcellus dates to the 15th century and gained a miraculous reputation after surviving a fire in 1519 which burned the original church housing it to the ground. According to tradition, the morning after the fire the crucifix was found completely intact, and since then it has become a point of reference for those seeking special graces.

In 1522, the crucifix was carried in procession throughout Rome for 16 days in the midst of a massive plague outbreak.

In his speech at Friday’s prayer event, Pope Francis noted that COVID-19 has hit the modern world at the same moment Christians are marking the season of Lent. Amid the suffering and sadness many are experiencing, God is “calling us to faith,” he said, insisting that this faith does not mean simply believing so much as coming to God and trusting in him.

The coronavirus, he said, has stripped down “the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image,” and has uncovered once more a sense of “common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”

Pointing to the heroic examples of the people who, despite their own fears, have given their lives to others suffering from the outbreak, he said this spirit of courage and self-denial is illustrative of how tightly lives are bound to 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.”

These every day-heroes, the pope said, are the doctors and nurses caring for the sick; the cleaners; supermarket employees; those who work in public transport; police and legal officials; volunteers; priests and religious who offer the sacraments and care for the sick and the dying.

He also praised parents and grandparents who are patiently teaching their children, in small daily actions, how to navigate a crisis by “adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer.”

“In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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