It was perhaps the most liturgically dramatic moment in the long history of the papacy. A solitary figure in white, stumbling from sciatica, climbed the long steps to the dais above a rain-sodden St. Peter’s Square. “Behold our sorrowful condition,” Pope Francis began. Recovering from a nasty bout of bronchitis, he fought for a moment to catch his breath.
Millions watched on their TVs, phones, and tablets as the pope spoke on March 27 into a deserted square, emptied by a virus that had killed tens of thousands and was holding a fifth of humanity in lockdown. “Open our hearts to hope,” the pope implored God, “that we might feel your fatherly presence.”
A camera shot from behind showed the crucified Christ’s head hung in sorrow, as if looking out to the lit figure in white, who seemed tiny between the vast colonnades. Never had leadership looked so lonely. Never had it been so essential.
The gospel reading was chanted: Jesus, on a boat with his disciples, sleeps through a storm until his disciples wake him and he calms it. The tempest takes place, in St. Mark’s telling, as the light was fading, as it seemed to be fading now. “For weeks now it has been evening,” Francis spoke into the camera. “Thick darkness has covered our squares, our streets, and our cities. It has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a desolate emptiness that paralyzes all that it passes.”
This was the pope piloting God’s people through a storm like no other. The pandemic would be defeated not by fleeing but by staying home, plunging the economies of the world into the sharpest, deepest recession in human history. The news was relentless: death, panic, fear. The world was in desolation.
“We find ourselves frightened and lost,” the pope said. “Like the disciples in the gospel, we have been caught off guard by an unexpected, furious storm.”
He was there to impart an exceptional blessing urbi et orbi—to the city and to the world—as popes before now had only ever done at Christmas and Easter. To pray for an end to the pandemic Francis had enlisted two resources that hung close by. The sorrowful Christ of the “miraculous crucifix” was from the church of St. Marcello in Via del Corso; the icon was Our Lady “protector of the Roman people,” normally housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In centuries past, they had both played a key role in ending the plague in Rome.
But as his reflection deepened, it was clear Francis’s purpose was not just to halt the virus, but to help us live with it. His task: to embolden God’s people to ride into the darkest, most dangerous part of the storm, not by battening down the hatches, but by opening humanity to the grace of conversion in its time of trial.
Francis’s mission—assumed at that moment, in the empty, wet square—was to help us embrace mass quarantine not as a prison instead of a death sentence, but as a time of purification and choosing that could incubate a new future.
Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?
To pray for an end to the pandemic is as natural for us as it was for the disciples to turn to Jesus in the middle of the storm. But prayer’s purpose is to build our trust in the efficacy of God’s mercy; and his mercy is never a quick fix that we might go back to being the same, but a sanatio in radice, a deep-seated cure that transforms us, individually and as a people. It takes time—as much time as it must. God cares about us too much to wreak vengeance on us, yet respects us too much to remove the chance of a better future by short-circuiting our conversion.
This was Francis’s point. When the disciples wake Jesus and berate him—“Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”—they believe in him but have forgotten who God is, how God is. They felt in charge of the boat, steering it full-sail ahead, and only now, when the sails are ripped and the rudder has snapped, do they realize, hopelessly, they are not in charge at all. In a complex sentence, Francis notes how the tempest of the virus has revealed “all the attempts to package and ignore what nourishes the soul of our peoples,” the attempts at “anaesthetizing” through activity and routines that detach us from our roots and the memory of those who have gone before us. Now, in the tempest, we see who we are. Our masks fall away and what is revealed is the thing we cannot escape: “our belonging as brothers and sisters,” fellow creatures created by a loving God.
We had been acting as if that were not true, as if there were no wars or injustice or climate crisis. Unmoved by the cry of the poor and our ailing planet, we thought “we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea”—when we all face the risk of death and poverty—“we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’”
The language of roots and belonging recalled the pope’s recent reflection on Amazonia: how technocratic, profit-before-people attitudes are destroying our ancestral interconnectedness, our soul and our culture, and the ties that bind us to one another, as well as our bond with nature. Our deracinated selves are like that storm-tossed boat, a flimsy, vulnerable thing now that the sea has unleashed its power. In a March 22 interview with the Spanish news anchor Jordi Évole, Francis recalled the dictum that God forgives always, human beings sometimes, but nature never. With the extreme weather events, Francis told Évole, nature is “kicking.”
Was the pandemic another example of nature kicking? The word “flu” comes from the Italian influenza degli astri, an old expression that attributes the disease’s mysterious arrival to the alignment of the stars. But these days we know too much about viruses and agribusiness—factory farming, genetic cloning, and wet markets full of wild animals. Mess with nature, and nature kicks back. These are unforgiving laws.
The same is true of human ecology. The pursuit of power and wealth pours acid on the bonds of belonging. When disaster strikes, it is the very networks of solidarity and fraternity long spurned as restraints on ambition that turn out to be the immune systems on which we all depend. The very people society ignored as unimportant, those performing “essential services,” now turn out to be the ones who save us.
In returning to the Lord and to others, said Francis, “we can look to so many fellow travelers who, in the face of fear, have responded by giving their lives.” Now, suddenly, it is the life of the Spirit—of love, kindness, and service—that emerges as the true life force of the world, revealing to us that our lives are sustained by ordinary folk “who are today writing the decisive events of our story”: doctors, nurses, cleaners, supermarket-shelf stackers, truck drivers, security staff, volunteers, and others (including priests and religious) “who understand that no one is saved alone.”
As our mentalities and priorities shift, the paths of salvation open up. What matters now, in the crisis caused by the pandemic, amid standstill factories and plunging markets, are our solidarity, our hospitality, our mercy. Our heroes and saints are not in magazines but next door: the parents encouraging their restless confined children, the new armies of volunteers—in the UK, 750,000 people have signed up—who will phone the lonely, pick up a prescription, bring food for the elderly. “Prayer and silent service,” says Francis, “these are our victorious weapons.”
Societies that pull together like this, putting the vulnerable first, can achieve extraordinary things. And if we can do it to combat COVID-19, why not also climate change, infant mortality, or war?
The epic 1842 Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni was a childhood favorite of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s. His Italian grandmother read it to him when he was growing up in Buenos Aires, and he could recite by heart its opening sentence, which begins: “One arm of Lake Como turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains…” (I’m quoting from the 1983 Penguin edition, translated by Bruce Penman.) Francis has a copy of The Betrothed on his desk, and it has been on his mind of late. How could it fail to be? Essential to the mise-en-scène of the novel—which takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish-Austrian rule of northern Italy in the early seventeenth century—is the plague that struck Milan around 1630, eventually killing a quarter of its citizens.
“I want to pray for all of the priests, the creativity of priests,” the pope said in his March 15 Angelus address, “who think of a thousand ways to be with the people so that the people don’t feel alone.” These are “priests with apostolic zeal who understand that in times of pandemic, you shouldn’t be Don Abbondio,” he added. Everyone who knew Manzoni’s novel—as almost everyone in Italy does—got the reference at once. Don Abbondio, the cowardly curé who refuses to marry Renzo and Lucia after being threatened by the thugs of a strongman, is easily suborned, will do anything for a quiet life, and reacts to the plague by shutting himself away in his house. He is the foil to the saintly and heroic pastors of the novel: the cardinal archbishop of Milan and the Capuchin friars who run the field hospital where the plague-wracked are brought (possibly) to get better or (probably) to die.
Manzoni’s powerful, carefully documented description of the plague comes in the form of a historical excursus midway through The Betrothed. He describes how it struck, at first in strange attacks of spasm and delirium accompanied by telltale bubonic swellings, or led to swift death without previous symptoms. Initially, the doctors and authorities denied that it was spread by human contact; it was blamed on black magic worked by foreigners, who were accused of being “anointers”—intentionally spreading poisoned “ointments” along city walls—and lynched. But gradually the city organized, and under its saintly archbishop, Federigo Borromeo, the church was key to its response.
Cardinal Borromeo resisted all pressure to seek refuge from the plague, urging his priests to be more ready to die than to abandon their people. “Go out with love towards the pestilence, as if towards your reward, towards a new life, when there is a chance of gaining a soul for Christ,” he wrote to his clergy. According to Manzoni, around sixty priests—eight out of every nine of the Milan diocesan priesthood—died of the infection.
The lazzaretto, the vast field hospital cum tent city (named for Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead), was where the infected of the city were taken and quarantined. It is almost certainly the inspiration for Francis’s famous metaphor of the church as a field hospital. Manzoni describes it vividly, at one point with 16,000 people stricken with the plague crammed into sheds and tents, its two “endless colonnades on either side overflowing with the desperately sick and the dead, lying together without distinction on palliasses or the bare straw.” Amid these pitiful scenes—including babies of dead mothers being suckled by she-goats—the Capuchin friars who run the lazzaretto rush around feeding and comforting the sick, consoling the dying and burying the dead—and of course becoming infected themselves.
The lazzaretto is a hell hole made heavenly by the witness of the friars and the grace that abounds there. It is where the novel’s various plot lines converge, and scenes of reconciliation and repentance take place: where the wicked, wealthy Don Rodrigo dies painfully as a powerless pauper but is forgiven by Renzo, who is reunited and reconciled with Lucia by the saintly Capuchin Fra Cristoforo.
In one scene Renzo, searching in the lazzaretto for Lucia, stumbles on a sermon being given by the Capuchin superior, Fr. Felice, to a group of recovered plague sufferers who are being led back to the city. The Capuchin asks them to ponder the thousands in the cemetery and to consider why they have been saved. “And why did he make that choice, my children?” the friar asks them. “Was it not to keep for himself a small nation chastened by affliction and fired by gratitude?… Was it not so that the memory of our own sufferings might make us compassionate and helpful to our neighbors?” He urges them to begin “a new life which shall be all charity. Let those of us who have got back all their strength give a brotherly arm to the weak.”
That we will not be the same after this has been on the pope’s mind.
“People are going to take from this crisis lessons to rethink their lives,” Francis told Jordi Évole. “We are going to come out better, although there will be fewer of us. Many will be lost on the way and it’s hard. But I have faith: we are going to come out of this better.”
In the midst of our trials, Francis said in his urbi et orbi, the Lord “challenges us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support, and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.” It is a time of testing, he said, in the sense of a time for making choices, “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” In our choosing and expressing that choice in action, we are saved. The elderly are treated, the lonely are visited, our roots are restored: we have built immunity.
In this time of choosing, Francis has praised the policies of governments that have taken what he calls “exemplary measures with clearly marked priorities to defend the population.” In a March 29 letter to a judge in Argentina he acknowledged that the economic crash and its associated ills were no small thing—it would cause hunger, unemployment, violence, and usury, all of which would have to be dealt with—but their policy showed the government’s priorities: “people first.” The contrary, he warned, would be to create a viral genocide for the sake of the economy.
How must the church choose? In 1630, the ill were quarantined in the lazzaretto to avoid the healthy becoming sick; the church was there, organizing it, its pastors dying with the dying. But in 2020 containment was barely tried before it was declared a failure. The new coronavirus had spread too fast, too widely, to be contained, forcing governments to adopt a strategy of slowing its spread through mass quarantine (“self-isolation”) of sick and healthy alike, shutting down all activities—like the church’s—that involve people congregating. If priests and sisters are elderly or unwell, they must self-isolate to avoid infection and to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed, but even fitter, younger priests and religious might be asymptomatic carriers who infect even as they console.
The lazzaretto of this pandemic is the COVID-19 ward at hospitals. Manzoni’s Fra Cristoforo and Fr. Felice are today the exhausted health workers battling with poor equipment and a paucity of ventilators as people lie coughing and fighting for breath. To date, more than fifty Italian doctors have died in the battle against the disease. In a letter to an Argentine judge, Francis said he was edified by the doctors, nurses, religious, and clergy who “risk their lives to heal the sick and protect the healthy.”
The inclusion of religious and clergy in this list is significant. Despite the restrictions on the church’s ministers, who must juggle conflicting obligations, Francis believes they must be on the frontline. Each pastor must discern ways of being close, while always, of course, supporting public-health policies. That, too, was Cardinal Borromeo’s stance in The Betrothed. “He was scrupulous in observing those precautions which would not interfere with the carrying out of his duties,” recalls Manzoni. But his duty came first: to be available for all who needed him, “hastening through the streets of the city to bring help to the poor wretches who were quarantined in their own houses, stopping at their doors or under their windows to listen to their lamentations, and to give them words of consolation and courage in return.” The cardinal “sought out the pestilence and lived in its midst,” writes Manzoni, “so that he himself was amazed, at the end of it all, to find himself unscathed.”
Francis has been careful not to issue instructions; that task is context-dependent and so properly belongs to local bishops. But by warning against being Don Abbondio, Francis is highlighting the temptation to withdraw. The church must be there for the sick and, while taking precautions, must not allow fear of contagion to keep it from doing so. At his morning homily on March 28, Francis said he had heard people criticize bishops who allowed their priests to go take food to poor people who were self-isolating. They argued that priests needed to be retained for the sacraments; bringing food should be left to civil authorities. They were saying, in effect, “we mustn’t get our hands dirty with the poor,” said Francis, likening their mindset to the doctors of the law who rejected Jesus because they had contempt for the people.
Service, self-abnegation, solidarity, fraternity, courage: in the trial at hand, the grace of conversion is available to the whole of humanity—including the church. It is a grace that reveals that we are now all in the lazzaretto together, and invites us to choose.