In an unprecedented message to the Church and the world, Pope Francis spoke in a near-empty St. Peter’s Square in an extraordinary Urbi et orbi blessing and the imparting of a plenary indulgence. The subject of the pontiff’s homily from the sagrato, the platform in front of the facade of St. Peter’s, was delivered within a Vatican on lockdown but accessible through media transmission to millions enduring the crisis of a global pandemic. Focusing on St. Mark’s account of a sleeping Jesus and frightened apostles on the boat amid a raging storm, the Pope wove in imagery of Christ calming both the storm and the fear of the apostles with the turmoil and uncertainty experienced by the world today.
As rain fell in the evening setting, the arms of Bernini’s colonnade seemed to symbolically wrap a church and a world facing a collective loneliness unparalleled in modern life. Ever the pastor, Pope Francis seized on that motif: “From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace,” he said in his address.
Francis also seized on the opportunity for conversion, a new beginning.
He said, “‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith.”
He continued, “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. [...] It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
The Pope shifted to the image of the boat floundering amid the harsh waves. “Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck.”
There is a painting in the Cave of Manresa, the mystical place in Catalonia where the future saint, Ignatius of Loyola, secluded himself during an intense period of prayer, contemplation, and meditation on both his own life and vocation, and how to better communicate with God. What emerged were his Spiritual Exercises, the foundation of Ignatian spirituality that shaped not only the Society of Jesus, but thousands of Jesuits and lay people over the centuries, including Jorge Bergoglio, SJ, now Pope Francis.
The painting, located in the sacristy of the church adjacent to the Cave, is entitled La Nave de la Iglesia (The Nave of the Church) by Jesuit brother Martin Coronas (1862-1928) and dates to 1909. The current director of the Cave at Manresa, Jesuit Father Lluís Magriñà, says the painting represents the universal church, moving together as one guided by the Roman pontiff. The title of the painting references the Latin word for ship, navis, and its correlation to the nave of a church or cathedral. Various religious orders, a Catholic monarch, a bishop, and a cardinal are seen manning the oars, safeguarding those put in their trust: such as a family, and others put into their care throughout the world.
“We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed,” Pope Francis reminded the faithful. “The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith.”
In Brother Coronas’s artwork, the pope grips an oar with his left arm. His right is raised in supplication toward an image in the darkened sky: Saint Joseph with the Christ Child.
While physically absent in the painting, the figure of the Blessed Mother hovers over the frame. During this pandemic that has especially besieged Italy, Pope Francis has frequently referred to the Blessed Mother as our “Health.” He does not fail to do so here. “I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea.”
Pope Francis also especially reminded the entire world that like those in the boat, the coronavirus pandemic has given the billions on the earth a chance to come together. “[Embracing his cross] means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity,” the Pope said.
James Day is the Operations Manager at EWTN in Orange County, California.