“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” is the title of a book by the Vatican Dicastery for Communication. It contains images and texts that illustrate the gestures and words of Pope Francis at the extraordinary “Urbi et Orbi” prayer service and blessing under coronavirus lockdown on March 27, 2020. The volume also features some of the Pope’s own thoughts and feelings during the “Statio Orbis”, as per this conversation with Fr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz, Secretary of the Dicastery.
In L’Osservatore Romano, archivist and librarian Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, investigates the profound meanings of the Pope’s Statio Orbis on March 27:
It is well known that we live in an era of massification of images. In no previous epoch of history have so many images been produced, and no epoch, like ours, has witnessed their radical banalization. Instead of unique and authentic images, we have mass-produced, selfie products manufactured in an instant and ready to be devoured by oblivion. The philosopher Walter Benjamin correctly spoke of the “loss of aura,” which means that the image no longer constitutes “the unique appearance of a distant thing” and becomes fixed in the sleepwalking repetition of a déjà vu. This is why the moving consensus around the image of Pope Francis in an empty St. Peter’s Square is something that makes one think, outside and inside the ecclesiastical space.
A year later, it is worth revisiting that image, and asking ourselves where its exceptional iconic power comes from. Why does that image, and not any other, continue to represent what we are still experiencing? And what does it reveal to us about itself or teach us about ourselves? Trying to summarize what would certainly merit broader reflection, I would point to four reasons.
The audacity to inhabit vulnerability as a place of human experience and believing. It is true that the dominant culture, the mainstream modelled by our consumer societies, has made vulnerability a kind of taboo. Frailty is subject to be concealed.
The audacity to embrace and give meaning to emptiness. One of the most powerful experiences of the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, was to witness the emptying of cities. From one moment to the next, there was a strange, unfamiliar silence. In disbelief, we looked out of our windows onto the streets and squares in absolute solitude, feeling as if we had been stripped of the world. Our first reaction was to read the emptiness as something hostile that threatened us.
The audacity to find a metaphor. Commenting on the Gospel text of Mk 4:35-41, Pope Francis made a far-reaching gesture: he reoriented the perception with respect to the pandemic. The first Heads of State to speak had referred to the pandemic as a war, a metaphor that is understandable up to a point, but also an equivocal one with implicit dangers. The Pope was the first to talk about it as a storm. This move from the narrow, belligerent plane to the cosmological plane coincided with a broadening of vision.
The audacity to pray to God in God’s silence. Storms are crisis experiences even for believers. There is an implied scandal in the cry of the disciples who try to rouse Jesus, ” “Master, do you not care that we die?” (Mk 4:38). As the Pope explains, this “is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in the heart.” In the face of the spread of evil and its traumatic proximity, we painfully feel what seems to be the incomprehensible silence of God.
Memory from 27 March 2020 compiled by Fr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz
The Pope has just finished one of his Wednesday audiences.
He is wrapped in silence and is watching the images from March 27, reliving what happened on that Friday of Lent. He is retracing that Statio Orbis celebrated in an empty Saint Peter’s Square, under the rain, the prayers interrupted by the sound of the sirens. It is more than an experience of merely remembering what happened. His face reflects the fact that he is praying.
We ask him what he was feeling while he silently ascended the steps leading to the Basilica:
“I was walking like that, alone, thinking about the solitude of so many people…
a thought that included everyone, a thought from my head and my heart together…
I was feeling all that while I was walking…”.
The world was watching the Bishop of Rome and was praying with him, in silence. It was watching the Pope as an intercessor between God and us, His people.So, we ask Pope Francis what he said to God in those moments.
“You know this, you already resolved a situation like this in the 1500s, ‘meté mano’.1
This expression, ‘put your hand’ is really mine. Many times, in prayer, I say:
‘Put your hands on us, please!’”.
1 “Meté mano”, is a slang expression in Spanish. It is colloquial, informal and popular, widely used in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires.
The Pope’s eyes linger on the empty Saint Peter’s Square. We ask him what he was thinking at that moment, what his thoughts were about the people and the suffering of so many people:
“Two things were going through my mind: the empty square, people united at a distance,
… and from this side, the boat with migrants, that monument…
And we are all in the boat, and in this boat we do not know how many will be able to land… The whole drama is in front of the boat, the plague, the loneliness… in silence…”.
The boat is cited in the Gospel of Mark which was read that evening. And it is present in the square, depicted in the monument that memorializes migrants. This is why every now and then, the Bishop of Rome’s gaze turned toward the colonnade on the right, toward that barely distinguishable monument in the obscurity.
“The boat!…”, the Pope repeats, almost whispering.
So, we ask what he was thinking about in particular during those moments, who he felt were most in need, who he was entrusting to the Lord during that prayer. He responds once again, in a low voice:
“Everything was united: the people, the boat and everyone’s suffering…”.
What was sustaining the Pope? What was giving him strength and hope in such an intense and dramatic moment?
Pope Francis remains in silence a few moments, looking at the images:
“Kissing the feet of the Crucified Christ always gives hope.
He knows what it means to walk and He knows all about quarantine because they put two nails there to keep Him there. Jesus’s feet are a compass for people’s lives, when to walk and when to stand still.
The Lord’s feet are very touching for me…”.
The images continue scrolling slowly.
Then the one appears that shows him with the liturgical vestments in the atrium of the Basilica. On the pavement is a large engraved inscription, 11 October 1962. We bring this to his attention. Right away, he exclaims:
“It was the beginning of the Council!”.
We remind him of the famous citation of Pope John XXIII’s famous “Speech to the Moon” when he unexpectedly came to the window of his study to bless the large crowd of the faithful holding candles and said: “Bring the Pope’s hug to your children”.
Pope Francis listens silently…
“I didn’t notice it at that moment…”.
It is a coincidence…almost as if to say that a new embrace from the Pope needed to be brought to every home, within the suffering and loneliness of isolated families, to hospital wards where the sick were ascending their own Calvaries without the presence or comfort of their dear ones.
“Returning home, you will find your children; give them a hug and say: ‘This is a hug from the Pope’. You will find some tears to dry. Do something, say a good word. The Pope is with you especially in the sad and bitter moments” (Saint John XXIII).
We ask him to continue remembering, to think once again about those moments as he views the images captured at the time.
“I was in prayer before the Lord… there…
An intercessory prayer before God…”.
The absence of people in the desolately empty square is striking. It was so different than all the other times, than all the other celebrations. But did the Pope sense the presence of the faithful, of believers and unbelievers? Was he aware of the many people who were connected at that moment with the Successor of Peter and with themselves through the media?
“I was in contact with the people. There was no moment in which I was alone…”.
But about the empty square, he adds:
“… it was quite impressive”.
The Statio Orbis was so sparse, devoid of everything. The presence of the people of God was missing. But there were some meaningful types of presence.
We ask him about what he experienced:
“Well. The Virgin was there…
I myself asked if the Virgin could be there, the Salus Populi Romani, I wanted her to be there…
And Christ… The Miraculous Christ…”.
Some people have said and have written that March 27 was an event destined to remain in the annals of history and in everyone’s memory.
The Pope closes the book on his memories, concluding:
“I do not know…
It was something original…
It all began because of a poor prison chaplain…”.