This past Friday evening, one pastor stood solitarily under a sky of steady rain, offering a word of hope and encouragement to a very uncertain and anxious world. Those words came from our Lord Jesus Christ. The man was Pope Francis.
He stood with no audience before him. He had no assistant beside him. He stood alone in the massive and otherwise bustling square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Isolated like nearly half the world who are confined to their homes because of the COVID-19 crisis, who he addressed through radio, television, Facebook and YouTube.
It made for a very dramatic image.
His text was the story of Jesus calming the angry sea of Galilee. While those around him, his disciples, were terrified for their safety, even their own lives, Jesus slept, undisturbed by the tumult.
“For weeks now it has been evening,” declared Francis, drawing from the first words in Mark’s telling: “On that day, when evening had come…”
The Pope applied that scene to our own day.
“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.”
This quiet darkness, this isolation, has impacted so many, so deeply, and at the same time. Seldom has the world collectively felt the very same fear and uncertainty as dramatically as we are today. Recognizing this, Francis said,
“We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented…”
We are all indeed in the same boat, most of the world caught off guard, just as the disciples were.
“On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are perishing’ (Mark 4:38).”
Like the coronavirus, this frightening storm came up suddenly, seemingly from nowhere. Their boat was buffeted, and the disciples were in fear of sinking. Speaking of Jesus, Francis explains,
“In spite of the tempest, he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father; this is the only time in the Gospels we see Jesus sleeping. When he wakes up, after calming the wind and the waters, he turns to the disciples in a reproaching voice: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ (v. 40).”
These are the words we must keep in mind in this day. They are the Lord’s who asks us why we are afraid, even while He is with us. Jesus understands their fear, just as He understands ours today. He knows that fear has become a common human experience. But here Francis makes a very interesting observation.
“They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them.”
But of course Jesus does care. He cares for us more than anyone does, ever has or ever will. Just like that storm, the coronavirus has not left Him unaware. Neither of these calamities snuck up on or surprised Him. He is not helpless nor uncaring in the face of them.
Francis reminds us that events like this virus can challenge our hubris and false confidence. The idea that because we live in this age of wealth, technology and political power, we are beyond such crises cannot sustain itself. We are indeed in need of God’s comfort, intervention, provision and fatherly care.
Francis declared to the world that Friday evening from the steps of a church that this loving care and hope comes ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ. What other faith has the hope and authority that Christianity does? What other belief system, government or philosophy can have one of its leaders speak so singularly to so many, believers or not, with such a powerful and true word of hope? That is the force of the Gospel.
Pope Francis concluded with these words,
“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… From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.
Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.
Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’ (cf. 1Pet 5:7).”
This is a message each of us would do well to bring to our families, neighbors, and our own hearts, for they are the words of life.
(The full text of Francis’ blessing can be found here.)
Photo from YouTube