ROME – Celebrating a Vigil Mass initiating the Catholic Church’s great feast of Easter, when Christians believe Christ rose from the dead, Pope Francis compared the silence of the tomb on Holy Saturday to what the world is experiencing due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking to viewers tuning into his livestreamed Easter Vigil Mass, Pope Francis noted that during events Holy Week Saturday is often ignored, as most are eager to pass from the commemoration of Jesus’s death Friday to that of his resurrection on Sunday.
However, this year, Francis said the silence of the tomb on Saturday and the despair of the disciples after Jesus’s death is like the present global health crisis.
Pointing to the women in the day’s Gospel reading who are preparing oils to anoint Jesus’s body at the tomb, Francis said that “They, like us, had before their eyes the drama of suffering, of an unexpected tragedy that happened all too suddenly.”
“They had seen death and it weighed on their hearts,” he said. “Pain was mixed with fear: would they suffer the same fate as the Master? Then too there was fear about the future and all that would need to be rebuilt.”
“For them, as for us, it was the darkest hour,” he said. Yet when they arrived at the tomb and found it already opened, the angel who appeared told them “do not be afraid.”
“This is the message of hope,” the pope said, adding that it is not just for the women in the Gospel, but “It is addressed to us, today. These are the words that God repeats to us this very night.”
With Jesus’s rising from the dead, Christians, “acquire a fundamental right that can never be taken away from us: the right to hope,” he said, insisting that it is not “mere optimism,” a “pat on the back” or encouragement, but is rather “a new and living hope that comes from God.”
Pope Francis spoke from the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica, where he celebrated the April 11 Easter Vigil Mass at 9p.m. with just a handful of assistants and members of the choir, with no faithful present. Though he usually opens the vigil at the back of the basilica for the “blessing of the fire” before processing to the main altar, this year he did the blessing at the Altar of the Chair, which sits behind the main altar of the basilica.
The preparation of the Easter candle, the large candle lit each year on Easter and which burns at every Mass until it is extinguished, was also skipped, as was the tradition of passing out candles to attendees and lighting them. Traditionally, the pope administers the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and communion to new Catholics during the vigil, however, due to the coronavirus this too was omitted, with the pope simply leading his virtual congregation in renewing their baptismal vows.
One tradition that was preserved, however, was the gradual lighting of the basilica, which is dark when the liturgy begins and is completely lit up by the time the “Gloria” hymn is sung, signifying Jesus’s resurrection.
In his homily, Pope Francis noted that the grave is a place that no one who enters ever comes out of, yet Jesus did it for humanity, “to bring life where there was death, to begin a new story in the very place where a stone had been placed.”
“He, who rolled away the stone that sealed the entrance of the tomb, can also remove the stones in our hearts,” he said, urging faithful not to give into resignation or to “place a stone before hope.”
God’s light cast out the darkness of the tomb, and “today he wants that light to penetrate even to the darkest corners of our lives,” Francis said, telling Christians that “even if in your heart you have buried hope, do not give up: God is greater. Darkness and death do not have the last word. Be strong, for with God nothing is lost!”
Hope, he said, requires courage. Quoting the cowardly character Don Abbondio from the famous Italian novel, I Promessi Sposi, or “The Betrothed,” by Alessandro Manzoni, he said, “Courage is not something you can give yourself” but is a gift from God.
“All you have to do is open your heart in prayer and roll away, however slightly, that stone placed at the entrance to your heart so that Jesus’ light can enter,” he said, adding that with God, “we will be tested but not shaken.”
Pope Francis said the message of hope that Easter offers has another dimension, which is “the sending forth,” like Jesus sent his disciples out to all nations after rising.
Jesus wants his followers to bring hope others in their everyday lives, he said, noting that Jesus sends his disciples to Galilee, which was not only far away, but home to people of different religions.
“What does this tell us? That the message of hope should not be confined to our sacred places, but should be brought to everyone,” he said, insisting that “everyone is in need of reassurance, and if we, who have touched ‘the Word of life’ do not give it, who will?”
“How beautiful it is to be Christians who offer consolation, who bear the burdens of others and who offer encouragement,” the pope said, urging Christians to be “messengers of life in a time of death!”
“Let us silence the cries of death, no more wars! May we stop the production and trade of weapons, since we need bread, not guns. Let the abortion and killing of innocent lives end,” he said, and prayed that those who live in abundance would be willing to shar with those who can’t afford the bare necessities.
“Today, as pilgrims in search of hope, we cling to you, Risen Jesus,” he said. “We turn our backs on death and open our hearts to you, for you are Life itself.”
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