The evening of Friday 27 March 2020, Pope Francis delivered an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing, to pray for an end to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. In his meditation, the Pope reflected on the words of Jesus to His disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
Pope Francis held the special Urbi et Orbi at the steps of St Peter’s Basilica.
“Urbi et Orbi”, literally “to the City [of Rome] and the World”, denotes a papal address and apostolic blessing given by the pope in his capacity as bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church spanning the whole world, on specific occasions. It is the most solemn form of blessing in the Catholic Church, and is reserved for occasions such as Easter, Christmas, and the proclamation of a newly elected pope concluding a conclave.
Urbi et orbi blessings are usually given from the central loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at noontime, and are broadcast worldwide.
Cross and Holy Virgin
Usually a colourful event reserved only for Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, the recent extraordinary Urbi et Orbi was held in view of the gravity of the current global situation of COVID-19, as a large portion of the world’s population self-isolate in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus.
Standing in a deserted St Peter’s Square with a steady rain falling, Pope Francis’s address and blessing were relayed to the world through all modern communication channels: Facebook, YouTube, TV, and radio.
The Pope prayed for the world at this critical juncture in the presence of two symbols of faith that the people of Rome have cherished over centuries: the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani usually housed in the Basilica of St Mary Major, and the miraculous crucifix kept in the church of San Marcello on the city’s Via del Corso. Both were brought to St Peter’s for the Urbi et Orbi.
Most importantly, however, the Pope exposed the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and imparted his Apostolic Blessing, offering everyone the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence.
Pope Francis began with a meditation on the crisis facing the world, reflecting on a passage from the Gospel of St Mark. The passage began with: “When evening had come” (Mk 4:35). “For weeks now it has been evening,” said the Pope. “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 it in people’s gestures, their glances give them away.
“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realised that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented … but called to row together …
“We feel afraid and lost, like the disciples whose boat was in danger of sinking while Jesus slept at the stern.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all in the same boat, and we call out to Jesus as the disciples did: ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’” Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, said to the sea ‘peace’, and there was a great calm.
The storm, Pope Francis said, exposes “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily lives … and lays bare all those attempts to anesthetise ourselves.”
“We have all gone ahead at breakneck speed, ignoring the wars, injustice, and cries of the poor and our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.
“In our stormy sea, we now cry out: ‘Wake up, Lord!’”
A time of choosing
Pope Francis picked Jesus’s question to His disciples once he calmed the storm: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
“Lord,” the Pope said, “You are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you … You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of Your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. “We can look to so many exemplary companions on the journey, who, even though fearful, have responded by giving their lives … It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value, and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, often forgotten people, who do not appear in newspaper headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so many others … In the face of so much suffering, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.
“Have you no faith?”
“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mk 4:40). “Faith”, Pope Francis said, “begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to Him so that He can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to good everything that happens to us, even bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”
Jesus’s cross, said Pope Francis, is the anchor that has saved us, the rudder that has redeemed us, and our hope, because “by His cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from His redeeming love.
“Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.”
In conclusion, Pope Francis entrusted all people to the Lord, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that faith might not waiver in this time of crisis.
“Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the Stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.
“Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ … And we, together with Peter, will ‘cast all our anxieties onto You, for You care for us’ (cf. 1Pet 5:7).”
1 April 2020