Through the fog of fear, confusion, and death wrought by the global pandemic, the spiritual leadership of Pope Francis has emerged as a beacon of hope.
“We have seen in these days of the coronavirus pandemic the heart of a pastor,” remarked Father John Paul Mary Zeller of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. The supreme pontiff devoted this year’s Holy Thursday homily, delivered in a practically empty St. Peter’s Basilica, to supporting priests — those who continue in their vocation despite the sneers, insults and abandonment. “[Priests] cannot go out on the street because bad things are said of them, in reference to the drama we have experienced with the discovery of priests who did ugly things,” Francis said.
“We, priests, need guidance and direction in these days,” Father John Paul remarked. “Pope Francis, in a very sincere way, said on Holy Thursday, ‘Today, I want to be near to priests. All of them.’ In that homily, the Pope likened the work of religious as essential as nurses and doctors, referring to them as “saints next door.” Francis continued, “[W]e must allow the Lord to ‘serve’ us, to ‘wash’ us. Unless we allow the Lord to wash us, we cannot be his servants.” He then encouraged priests to allow their own feet to be washed. “Christ is your servant,” Francis reminded the ordained. “He is near to you to give you the strength to wash feet.”
Father John Paul said, “In my own priesthood, after seven years, I have tried to serve the People of God entrusted to my care. I know I fail miserably, very often. I appreciated hearing the Pope encourage us to allow Jesus to get down on his knees and wash our feet. Pope Francis is a man of gestures and imagery. This image spoke deeply to me.”
When Pope Francis addressed the Church and the world in the extraordinary urbi et orbi in an empty Saint Peter’s on March 27, when he blessed that empty square and in turn the whole world with a monstrance containing the wordless, pure Eucharistic Lord, one wonders where such a world would be without the Incarnation. A Jesuit priest once said, “The drama of the world today is the result of not only the absence of God but also and above all the absence of mankind.” Such an insight was from Pope Francis himself when still Jorge Bergoglio, a reflection from a short book, The Way of Humility.
“Watching him limping up Vatican hill alone, then adoring the crucified Christ in front of an empty Saint Peter’s Square, contemplating the Eucharist without any word before blessing the entire world with the Holy of the Holies, in driving rain, in the falling dawn, was a peak of his pontificate and a watershed in Church history,” foreign correspondent Paul Badde observed.
Earlier in March, as the pandemic crippled Italy, Pope Francis embarked on a walking pilgrimage amid the empty streets of Rome, to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and venerated the Salus Populi Romani icon — Mary, Health of the Roman People. The Pope’s simple pilgrimage in a time of a health catastrophe evoked a similar procession from another Roman pontiff, Pope St. Gregory the Great. Gregory’s immediate predecessor, Pelagius II, was a victim of the Roman Plague of 590. On April 25, 590, Pope Gregory led a penitential procession through the Eternal City, those who accompanied the pope chanting Kyrie Eleison.
Father John Paul noted that since the time of Pope Gregory the pontiff has been known as the Servant of the Servants of God. “The service of my priesthood, all the way up to the pope,” Father John Paul said, “is nothing without God the Son, Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, getting down on his knees and looking into my eyes and asking me personally, ‘May I wash your feet.’”
EWTN’s Rome Bureau Chief Emeritus Joan Lewis commented, “I have seen Pope Francis these days as a father of a family, a family he loves and is trying to protect from the pandemic threat but does not know how. You can see his sorrow and feel his helplessness, especially at the always growing number of victims, most especially the thousands forced to die alone and be buried alone. He turns to the only thing that might help his children at this time, prayer. His heartfelt supplication to Our Lord and His Mother, his anguished face says it all. We see and feel his solitude and we want to help him as well! What would help us is the one thing we cannot do — hug the Holy Father and hug each other. And so prayer is our only recourse as well.”
President of Assumption College and chair of the USCCB’s National Review Board, Dr. Francesco Cesareo, also recognized a familial motif. “In observing Pope Francis these last few weeks in the various prayer services in St. Peter’s Square I have been struck by the coming together of the image of mother and father. Bernini’s great colonnade symbolizes mother Church embracing her children keeping them safe from all that is evil. Francis, by holding these special services in the square, complements that image as he lives out fully his role as father of the Church, concerned for all those suffering from this pandemic, doing all that he can for the good of his children, the faithful, as any father would. The worry he carries is evident in his face as he implores Christ and Mary to come to our aid,” Dr. Cesareo said.
EWTN’s Vatican Bureau Chief, Alan Holdren, found himself drawn to another facet of Francis’s pastoral ministry: his daily Mass, particularly the Vatican’s decision to open the daily Mass “to and for the world via global broadcast every morning from his private chapel. Never before have we had this access, the chance to participate in Mass daily with the Holy Father,” Holdren explained. “We can pray with the Pope right now in a way that we couldn’t before this pandemic. And amid lockdowns, it’s very similar to the access we have to our own parish priests. Pope Francis has invited us all somehow into the intimacy of his private prayer life. Mass is followed by Benediction and Eucharistic Adoration. He’s not just telling us how to respond in a time of crisis, he’s showing us.” Daily Mass with Pope Francis, which he says at 7 a.m. in Rome, is aired on EWTN at 1 a.m. EST and aired live on the network’s Facebook page, which viewers can watch any time afterward (www.facebook.com/ewtnvatican).
The theme of mercy, a hallmark of Pope Francis’s pontificate, reemerged in dramatic fashion when in the United States, the naval hospital ship USNS Mercy was commissioned to service the sick and infirmed at the Port of Los Angeles. Lindy Wynne of the Southern California-based ministry Mamas in Spirit was drawn to the profound drama on the night Christ was betrayed, where even there Jesus teaches mercy. “Jesus’s prayer in a garden, rather than a temple, during a most significant time of fear, reminds us that God is omnipresent,” Wynne said. “God is with us in every space and moment. God meets us in the intimacy of our homes, hospitals and grocery stores to console us and move us outside of ourselves.” Quite simply, to do what “Pope Francis shares, to ‘not stop loving.’”
Father John Paul was commissioned as one of more than 1,000 priests as a Missionary of Mercy by Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday in 2016, during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. At the end of the Jubilee Year, the pontiff asked if the Missionaries of Mercy might continue in their commission. “It has been like taking a magnifying glass and putting it up to an object that needs to be seen and to discover its true beauty and magnificence,” Father John Paul explained. This is such a time when Father John Paul sees a global need for the grace of mercy.
“In the days, weeks, months and even years to come, many people are going to be brought to their knees by the current coronavirus pandemic,” Father John Paul said. “2000 years ago, the world changed with the ‘Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.’ History has never been the same. Christians can say that ‘His Story,’ that is, the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has become ‘our story.’ Our lives find meaning and purpose in ‘His-story.’”
Father John Paul concluded, “I have had the sense that life as we knew it before has got to change. We all have to respond to this crisis. Only God knows the future. We will have plenty of opportunities to practice the corporal and spiritual works of Mercy. We need to live one moment, one day at a time. We have got to slow down our pace of life and recognize the Face of Jesus Christ in one another.”
James Day is the Operations Manager at EWTN in Orange County, California.