ROME (AP) – On the day of March, when Italy recorded the largest jump in coronavirus deaths, Pope Francis broke free to offer extraordinary prayer and a request from his flock to reconsider his priorities, claiming that the virus had proved they need each other.
Francis’ words from the rainy promenade of St. Peter’s Basilica summed up the basic messages he emphasized during his seven-year pontificate: solidarity, social justice and care for the most vulnerable.
However, the dramatic moment also underscored how isolated the pope became during the extraordinary event of COVID-19 and during the ongoing season of resistance from his conservative critics: He was completely alone in front of an invisible enemy and preached on a eerily empty square.
During the viral crisis, Francis became a “prisoner of the Vatican” in the 21st century, as one of his predecessors was once known, robbed of the crowds, foreign trips, and visits to the periphery that defined and popularized his papacy. This week, he will re-establish physical contact with his flock with the revived Wednesday’s public audience, but the meetings will take place in the inner Vatican courtyard in front of a limited crowd, and not in the vast St. Peter’s Square.
After weeks during which Italy has brought the virus under control, the number of cases in the country is increasing – now more than 1,000 new infections are added every day – so there is nothing to say when or how more ambitious public gatherings and roads can return.
What does all this mean for an 83-year-old pope who is trotting around the world and for his service in the 1.2 billion Catholic church?
Alberto Melloni, a church historian who is usually sympathetic to Francis, declared that a pandemic marked the beginning of the end of Francis’ pontificate. In a recent essay, he claimed that the tension that had developed during the papacy came to light during the lock-in and would not disappear even after the taming of COVID-19.
“There is a historic point in every papacy, after which the last phase, which can last for years, begins,” Melloni wrote. For František, “it was a pandemic and his loneliness against the virus.”
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh agreed that the pandemic was indeed “before and after” for the papacy and for humanity itself. However, he questioned that Francis was isolated and said that the crisis offered him an unexpected opportunity to provide spiritual guidance to a world in need.
The pandemic, he said in an interview, gave “a whole new impetus to the papacy” to double its basic message, which is most comprehensively formulated in Francis’ encyclical 2015 “Praised”. In the document, Francis demanded that political leaders correct the “perverted” structural inequalities of the global economy, which turned the Earth into a “huge pile of dirt.”
“He believes that this is a turning point and that what the church can offer humanity could be very useful,” Ivereigh said. “He is convinced that … in a crisis and a great crisis, such as a war or a pandemic, you will do better or worse.”
There are rumors that Francis is writing a new encyclical for the world after COVID-19, but a key part of his message is now embodied in the Vatican Commission, which helps local church leaders to meet the needs of the poorest people now and after the emergency disappears.
The Commission provides concrete assistance – about every month the Vatican announces new fan supplies to the developing country – as well as policy recommendations on how governments and institutions can rethink global economic, social, health and other structures more equitably and sustainably.
“The Pope is not just looking at the state of emergency,” said Sister Alessandra Smerilli, an economist who is a key member of the commission. “He may be one of the few world leaders to ensure that we do not waste this crisis, so that all the pain that this crisis has caused is not in vain.”
In recent weeks, Francis has also launched a series of new catechism lessons that apply Catholic social teaching to a pandemic and confirm the church’s “preference for the poor” by demanding that the rich not be given priority in vaccinations and that political leaders address social injustice exacerbated by the crisis.
“Some people can work from home, while for others it is not possible,” František warned last week. “Some children … may continue to receive academic education, while this has been abruptly interrupted for many, many others.” Some powerful countries may spend money to solve the crisis, which would mean a halt in the future for others.
“These symptoms of inequality reveal social illness; it is a virus that comes from a sick economy, “he said.
These words were delivered to a television camera from the František Library – barely a moment that would catch the headline. It is a setting that the Vatican has used since March, when it suspended all non-essential activities and assemblies.
More importantly, the pandemic deprived František of one of his most powerful tools: traveling abroad. Since the celebration of St. John Paul II. In the style of celebrities, the Holy See counted on foreign travels and accompanying 24-hour media coverage in order to get the Pope’s message to a wide international audience that would otherwise never pay him much attention.
Through these trips, Francis touched the base with his far-reaching priests and nuns, delivered harsh love messages to world leaders, and provided pastoral care, often in the forgotten corners of the planet. They also allowed him to push through an envelope when he returned home about the questions that were close to his heart.
What will mean a longer absence of such travel for the papacy will be seen. However, Francis willingly adhered to the locking of the Italian government and even criticized the priests who complained about such measures.
Ivereigh said Francis also expressed his “spiritual closeness” in other ways, including his morning masses, which were broadcast in real time and which millions of people had seen before the Vatican pulled the plug when the Italian churches reopened.
Throughout the summer, there were reports of priests, nuns, and ordinary people around the world who received one of Francis’ famous “cold talks”: a bishop in Mozambique who was involved in the outbreak of cholera and malaria, as well as the Muslim uprising; an Argentine nun caring for transsexual women.
Although such feelings, which feel good, sometimes escaped during a typical slow Vatican summer, they did not drown the constant criticism of the American Catholic media from the conservative opponents of Francis, a small but loud wing of the church.
They used his relative isolation to continue their attacks and demands for responsibility during two decades of covering the actions of former US Cardinal Theodor McCarrick, whom Francis removed from power last year after a Vatican investigation concluded that he had sexually abused minor and adult seminarians.
Francis still did not publish a report on what the Vatican knew and when on McCarrick, two years after he promised to do so.
As proof of the conservative wing’s desire to look beyond the Franciscan papacy, two books by prominent Catholic authors were published this summer. Both were called “The Next Pope”.
One provided sketches of the characters of 19 papal candidates at the next conclave, the other a list of the qualities that the next pope must have.
Each of them pontified about the future pontificate – usually taboo, while the current pope is very much alive. However, their publication suggests that at least some are considering what will follow, not only after the pandemic, but also over the papacy.