“The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls…We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.” –Pope Francis, March 27, 2020
Last Friday night in an eerie apocalyptic scene, Pope Francis ascended steps in an empty Saint Peter’s Square that was built to hold 300,000 people. In the light rain falling that Rome evening, the square’s desolate silence screamed of an Italian nation’s roaring desperation.
While no one was there to hear his words, they were spoken to a city and world in need of inspiration.
He stood in the heart of a devastated nation in a world shaken by fear of the future. His reflection was on a New Testament reading of Jesus and his Apostles crossing a stormy night sea. As the storm threatened to sink them, Jesus was sleeping soundly. When they woke him he asked them about their faith.
For even true believers keeping faith amid a storm can be hard. That’s human nature.
Reading religious texts of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, or literature across the centuries, you’ll find that losing faith is a theme common to all of us past and present. In any tragedy it is normal to look to the heavens and demand answers. How can a just God allow so many people to die alone, gasping for elusive life-giving air stolen by a virus ravaging their bodies?
The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “We talk about providence when things in the world work out the way we know they should.”
But when we find that things don’t work out the way they should, we blindly grasp for any rope to pull us out of desperation. On Friday, Pope Francis offered assurance to a divided world gripped by a viral outbreak of sickness and death.
In our own country, even the scientific approach to halting the virus’ spread is subjected to judgment from our own political beliefs. But if we cannot agree on a selfless way forward, we are doomed to the madness that we have wrought upon ourselves.
The empty scene in Saint Peter’s Square is a sign of the times. Here at home an empty Penn State campus echoes the emptiness of New York’s Times Square or barren city streets around the world. We have never seen anything like this in our lifetimes and it impacts us in even small ways.
This contagion has even altered trust in our most basic human interaction. For many of us the invisible virus casts suspicion on almost every other person. In chance encounters, we veer from one another, often even avoiding eye contact. While it may be necessary, it still seems counter to our humanity.
The pope seemed to be making that very point: “For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost.”
However, there must be this understanding: “On this boat… are all of us... so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
He shows us that the way forward, like so many other human triumphs, will start at home: “How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze…”
And he reminded us the real leadership will not come from world leaders but by the efforts of people called to serve in every town and community: “Our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”
But as the numbers of infections and deaths climb daily, we cannot let fear overtake us. An old Arab proverb says “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” Indeed faith is important, but so too is “tying our camel,” a way of saying that we must act in our everyday lives. The small things we do will prove to be the most decisive weapon we have if we simply keep the faith.