Last Friday’s extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing received a very positive reception. Most Catholics on social media, even many who are usually critical of Pope Francis, praised the ceremony as a much-needed beacon of hope in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we now face. The strength imparted by the pope’s homily, which reflected on the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm, was extremely timely and reassuring to troubled hearts. The beauty of the evening service itself, with its backdrop of an empty plaza in the rain, was very moving. The pope delivered the Litany of Supplication in the presence of the icons who have, in the past, been associated with warding off plagues. The event showed Francis as a spiritual leader capable of uniting the Church, for it was not him alone praying there, but the whole world with him. Yet nothing was more poignant than the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by the pope blessing both the city and the world with the monstrance, to the sound of the bells.
At that moment, hardened hearts could not but melt away; their criticism faded. It was undeniable for anyone with faith that the Spirit was present in St. Peter’s at that moment. This is why, apart from the fringe voices still clinging to the “Pachamama” nonsense or copy-pasting fundamentalist memes, the entire Church united with the pope that night, irrespective of their personal opinions on Francis.
A common refrain began to emerge among the voices who have been most critical of Francis: that this blessing (and not any of Francis’s magisterial teachings or acts) was the high point of his pontificate.
This idea presents us with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should welcome this new opening among the critics, recognizing that they were capable of giving Francis credit where it is due, and for seeing something positive in him, rather than trying to spin the ceremony in a negative light, as has often been the case. Let us hope that this was a first step in an incremental journey towards full communion with the Vicar of Christ.
However, as much as we should welcome their incrementalism, Francis has warned us that gradualism does not mean we should embrace relativism. In this sense, by saying that this Urbi et Orbi blessing–and none of his magisterial documents or decisions–was the zenith of Francis’s pontificate, we incur the danger of relativizing his magisterial teachings.
Last Friday was not a glimpse of “clarity” after years of confusion and ambiguity. It was not the Pope finally doing something right after an otherwise disastrous papacy. It was not an epiphenomenon, it was not a fluke. Francis was not acting out of character. As Mike Lewis wrote in a very accurate tweet: “Here’s one of the best kept secrets about Francis: he talks like that all the time.”
Why is this a well-kept secret? Is it Francis’s fault? Not at all: most of his speeches, homilies, and documents are publicly available on the Vatican website, as well as credible media sources such as Vatican News or Zenit. Anyone with a computer or cellphone and an internet connection can access them at any time.
But it’s a well-kept secret because the media outlets on which many Catholics rely for information about the Church have been distorting Francis’s image. They’ve been trying to sell him as a worldly pope, one who sacrifices the mystical and spiritual dimensions of the faith in order to accommodate the values of the secular and political world.
The difference is that Friday’s Urbi et Orbi was so widely disseminated in its entirety, that it was impossible to bury the pope’s spirituality under layers of misinterpretation and misinformation, as is usually the case. That evening, Francis was allowed to shine to all the faithful, as he really is, without the dark filters that formerly-Catholic media try to place on him all the time in order to appease their own secular and political values.
Even if Francis was especially inspired this Friday, this is the truth of the matter: the same Bergoglian spirituality is reflected in all his teachings. People who have become acquainted with Francis’s words as they really are, were moved by the service, but not at all surprised.
Maybe his critics are correct in saying this was Francis’ finest moment, but not because this was unusual of Francis. Francis’s entire pontificate foreshadowed this moment. Every single one of Pope Francis’s acts and teachings led up to Friday. As Brian Killian tells us in another tweet, “the pope of the Urbi et Orbi is inseparable from the pope of Amoris Laetitia.”
When Francis exited St. Peter’s basilica and held the Blessed Sacrament high to bless a world afflicted by disease and suffering, the God of Mercy was made manifest for everyone to see. We then could feel Him, the God that Francis has been preaching all along. He was not a God of Judgment unleashing a scourge on mankind for the sins of a minority, as several non-authoritative and biased voices have been pontificating. No, he was a God of Mercy, blessing his children and calming the storm, coming to the aid of our vulnerable pleas.
As the Vicar of Christ taught in his wonderful speech:
“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. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others”
This is more consistent with the true God of Catholicism than anything dissenting pundits have been offering. Rather than using an epidemic to judge us, God is using it as a way to make us decide between good and evil, while radically respecting our freedom in the process. As Francis says, God is “calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing.”
So what do we choose? Will we decide, once again, to ideologize the great human tragedy that this pandemic has wrought, and capitalize on it to advance political agendas in our Church and government? Or will we choose to use this opportunity to be light to the world, to leaven this afflicted society with our Christian charity?
All around, we can see surprising acts of charity and mercy, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If we peruse social media, we are bound to find many who exemplify these values. Francis offers these examples:
“We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. 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 and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt 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 very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves (…) 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.”
Shouldn’t we, as Catholics, lead this wave of solidarity? Isn’t this a propitious time to evangelize others through our actions? Indeed, and we should stand out not just individually, but ecclesially. We must stand out as a Church. As Francis said: “In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”
As a Church, we become one when we rally behind the one who is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity” (Lumen Gentium 23): the Roman Pontiff. This is what we experienced last Friday. This is what we should have been experiencing over the last seven years. This is what we should be experiencing going forward, if we learn our lesson from the papal blessing.
What did we experience? My wife, Claire Navarro Domingues, had a very beautiful insight as we watched the Urbi et Orbi blessing together. She said that the ceremony reminded her of Old Testament passages, as when “the High Priest (in biblical times) walked or entered to the Holy of Holies representing the entire people of God and praying on their behalf.” This insight touched me when I read today’s readings of the Liturgy of the Hours:
“For the one who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock (…) It was essential that he should in this way become completely like his brothers so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion, able to atone for human sins. That is, because he has himself been through temptation he is able to help others who are tempted.”
— Heb 2:11,17-18
Of course, this biblical passage refers to Jesus Christ as the High Priest, not a limited (and yes, sinful) human like Pope Francis. Still, I think that Francis’s blessing last Friday profoundly resonates with this passage. This, however, only makes sense if we are before a God of Mercy: the one Francis has been preaching. This is the true meaning of the mercy Francis teaches: he is not (as he is falsely accused) offering a secularized “watering down” of doctrine, or giving people excuses to sin. What the Church preaches through Pope Francis–as even his critics were able to admit last Friday–is the true mercy of God. How blessed are we to be living in such age of mercy! This is the time to bring the lost sheep back to the fold.
If you have had your misgivings about Francis, yet were moved or impressed by the Urbi et Orbi blessing, I extend to you the same invitation as Mike Lewis did in his tweet. After sharing that Francis talks like that all the time, Mike invited his readers to “give him another chance.” Do not be afraid to do so. As St. Peter says through the mouth of two of his excellent successors:
“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith? Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ”
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.