An eerily silent St. Peter’s Square. A solitary figure in white, limping up the steps of the basilica. That same small, lonely figure, emerging with the monstrance, lifted to bless the world…once, twice, three times.
A year ago, this June, my youngest daughter and I had the opportunity to tag along on my husband’s work trip to Italy. Having visited that beautiful country less than a year ago, the images coming from across the ocean feel even more real to me. Italy was a very different place last summer. The streets of Milan were crowded and bustling. The only way to see St. Peter’s Square even close to empty was to visit it in the early morning hours. Incidentally, the Sunday we were in Rome we didn’t realize that Pope Francis was out of town and we – along with many, many others – had crowded into the square, hoping for a glimpse of and a blessing from our Papa. Even in his absence, the faithful crowded to see him.
Now, less than a year later, that square is empty.
Along with many others across the country and around the world, I have been trying to tune in to watch livestreamed versions of the liturgical services that I would normally participate in, in person. I have prayed with livestreamed Eucharistic adoration, participated in livestreamed Masses from a laptop in my living room, and even begged my spiritual director to video chat my husband and me so that we could participate in his private Mass (he happily obliged).
But it just isn’t the same. The Eucharist is a presence…a Real Presence. It is not a thing to be watched, but a Person to be received. No amount of screen-time with Jesus can equate even a few seconds in front of a tabernacle.
Praying with Pope Francis felt different. It was the first livestreamed prayer that I had participated in, in which I felt that I was really taking part in it.
Recently, one of our daughters was sick and had to spend some time in the hospital, and I had never seen my husband so sad and helpless. He was eager to do something, anything to help ease her suffering. Of course, all he could really do was let the doctors do their work while he loved her and cheered her up and supported her through the roughest moments. Fathers never want to see their children suffer. They especially don’t want them to suffer alone.
But the nature of this pandemic is such that so, so many people are suffering alone. Covid-19 sufferers are isolated – in their homes or in the hospital. Many, many people are dying from covid-19, all alone. They are dying without family or priest or sacraments. Many others are lonely in other ways – lonely and scared in their commute to a job in an essential business, lonely in their sudden unemployment, lonely in their prolonged isolation from family and friends, lonely in abusive and dysfunctional homes where their suffering goes unreported, even lonely in rectories (as our priests and seminarians are, indeed, missing us as much as we miss them).
What would a father want to do, when confronted with so many of his children suffering? He would want to rush to their side – to tell them a joke or give them hug or offer a blessing. What if you were Papa to so, so many suffering children? And what if they were all forced to stay alone in their homes and hospitals, scared and without the reassurance that only Papa could bring?
A neglectful father would offer a half-hearted gesture of some sort. But a real Papa? He would offer everything he possibly could, to reassure his children that they were not alone. He would use every tool in his chest, to try and help them in their time of need.
And that is exactly what we have been seeing our spiritual “Papa” do for the Church in these recent days. Being so closely acquainted with both a biological father (my husband) and several spiritual fathers, I can easily imagine what was going through Pope Francis’s mind this week. “What can I do to reassure them? How can I help them through this? Why, oh, why, Lord? Why are you letting these children of yours and mine suffer?”
He offered one consolation after another. He offered the possibility of a plenary indulgence, for those suffering from covid-19 and those caring for them and praying for them. He invited the world to join him in praying the rosary. Then, a few days later, he asked all to join him in praying the Our Father. He limped through the streets of Rome, making a pilgrimage to pray for an end to the pandemic.
And then, on Friday, March 27, 2020, he offered the world a blessing that is ordinarily reserved for Easter and Christmas.
And as he stood alone in the square, a solitary, small figure, it was clear that he was hurting with us. He was suffering with the Church. And, as he lifted Jesus to bless the world, this representative of Christ sent another message — Christ suffers with you, too.
The Pope was alone, united to the Church’s members and their sudden, terrifying loneliness. Yet, as a good Papa does, he also pointed us to the truth — we are not alone. We will never be alone.
Jesus will always be with us. And our Papa won’t let us forget it.