It is “time to choose what matters and what passes away,” Pope Francis told us March 27 when he spoke from the Vatican.
Like millions around the earth, I tuned in to hear the pope deliver his blessing to the world. Globally, we pandemic-besieged souls gathered around screens and on a multitude of devices to form a community with a leader who exuded moral authority and hope.
And what did we see and hear?
Visually, it was stunning. For those who have been in St. Peter’s Square when it was crowded — and of course, prior to this pandemic, when was it not? — it was moving to see the solitary figure of Pope Francis walking alone through the rain, without an umbrella, slowly mounting the stairs to a small covered platform. Empty, rain-glistened pavement stretched behind him to the streets of Rome.
The emptiness was interrupted only by a solitary person or a couple scurrying by — perhaps a technician or a cameraman or residents of Vatican City?
The pope walked crookedly as if favoring one side of his body. Someone said he has sciatica. He reminded me of older friends who need hip replacements.
He chose, symbolically, to speak as Roman dusk fell. The theme, from Mark 4:35-41, was Jesus calming the sea after the terrified disciples awaken him. The chapter begins by telling us evening has arrived. Indeed, as we listened to the pope, darkness descended fully over the Vatican.
And the rain steadily fell. Once, in 2001, I covered a ceremony at the Vatican for my local Catholic paper. Our new archbishop was receiving his pallium with other archbishops from around the world, and the square was packed.
Suddenly, the sky darkened ominously and a violent June cloudburst erupted. Waves of water rolled down through the square. Nuns in black garb picked up chairs and put them over their heads. It is not an exaggeration to say that those of us who stayed to the end could literally wring out our underwear.
I couldn’t help but think of that violent storm, like the one the disciples experienced in the sea, as the pope walked in solitude through the soft rain. It fell gently, as if the heavens themselves were weeping along with our plight.
“For weeks now, it has been evening,” the pope began, carrying on the theme of this dark moment in our history. We notice the darkness even in the air, he said. “We notice it in people’s gestures, their glances give them away.”
I thought of my furtive forays to the grocery store, where the usual Midwestern friendliness has been replaced by serious demeanors and, yes, quick glances to decide how best to negotiate around each other so we don’t come too close.
Pope Francis spoke of Jesus standing in the stern, “the part of the boat that sinks first.” Jesus, courageous, offering hope and connectivity.
“No one reaches salvation by themselves,” Pope Francis reminded us.
But he also spoke of our connection to the earth.
“We were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet.”
We lived, the pope reminded us, “thinking we would stay healthy in a world that is sick.”
Many nights, when I have trouble sleeping, I join Jesus in the boat, the only time in Scripture, said Pope Francis, when we see him sleep. I have tried to find peace and consolation in his calming presence.
When all of this is over, I pray that Jesus will help us do better at choosing what really matters.
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