It was January 26, 2020, that Pope Francis spoke for the first time about the “virus that has spread in China.” The pope has played a special role of accompanying the planet during the pandemic, comforting, advising, exhorting, setting an example.
That same day, the COVID-19 pandemic was a distant reality. During a prayer intention at the Angelus address, the Pope directed his thoughts to the “victims of the virus that has broken out in China.”
At that time when the crisis was seen to be intensifying in that country, the pontiff praised the efforts of the Chinese community to combat the epidemic. The Holy See collected and sent 700,000 masks to China.
The arrival of the virus in Italy a month later coincided with the beginning of Lent. In Rome, a region then less affected than Lombardy, the first symptom of a crisis of great magnitude was the closure of churches on Ash Wednesday. On March 6, a first case of coronavirus was detected in the Vatican.
A few days later, the Vatican closed its museums, and took refuge behind its walls. Italy, like many other countries, discovered confinement.
The pontiff then crossed out all public audiences. As a sign of closeness to the people, he took an initiative on March 9 that would bring comfort and support to many around the world: the exceptional transmission of his morning Mass from the Casa Santa Marta.
He offered his first Mass “for the patients of this epidemic, for the doctors, nurses, and volunteers who are helping so much.” This became a ritual throughout that period of the crisis and an opportunity each day—until May 17 when these daily broadcasts ended—to offer his support and prayers to all affected by the pandemic.
From the onset of the health crisis, Pope Francis insisted on the importance of seeing as well the dysfunctions of society, exacerbated in many cases by the virus.
For example, on March 11, he urged faithful not to forget those who suffer the evils of war, as in Syria. This crisis, he stressed, is the right time to understand the value of “closeness.”
March 27 was a high point of the Pope’s pandemic ministry. Unable to be physically with the people, he found the way to give his apostolic blessing. He gave the exception blessing “Urbi et Orbi”(to the city and the world) in an almost apocalyptic scene that was to mark minds and hearts all over the world. Alone on the steps of the Square in front of St Peter’s Basilica, under the beating rain, he entrusted humanity in the storm to Christ: “We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’”
Pope Francis, on March 30 also warned governments of the world against the temptation to sacrifice lives to save the economy, a logic that would be “a viral genocide” .
Aware of the great difficulties that could affect the weakest nations, the Pope set up an emergency fund for the countries of the South which he endowed with US$750,000. On April 15, he set up a commission to reflect on the socio-economic challenges posed by the crisis. The pontiff testified to his deep conviction that the world crisis was “a time for inventiveness and creativity,” as he said in an interview April 7.
Pope Francis led a historic Holy Week as he celebrated almost alone, all the great ceremonies of the Easter Triduum. The next day, at the Easter Vigil, using the popular Italian pandemic slogan “everything will be all right,” he proclaimed that the Resurrection was a light “in the darkness of our night.”
In spite of the suffering of humanity, Easter, he said, had the power to transmit to the world “a different contagion” — that of hope.
The Pope again convoked the world to pray the rosary for the end of the pandemic, on May 30. Throughout this period, Pope Francis also seemed to meditate on the need, in order to face the crisis, to call for a universal fraternity that would unite the believers of various religions.
A few months later, he made a major contribution to this reflection on social renewal: an encyclical. For if Fratelli tutti, signed on October 3, 2020, at the tomb of St Francis of Assisi, was first of all the fruit of a long dialogue with the great imam of Al Azhar, the pontiff explained that it had been written during the pandemic, while the virus was exposing “our false certainties.”
These reflections were already germinating when, on August 19, the Pope warned against the risk of “giving priority to the richest” in the distribution of vaccines. He also denounced the “great virus, that of social injustice.”
Pope Francis then called for “globalisation of the cure.” At the end of December, the Vatican, encouraged vaccination to put an end to the pandemic. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deemed it “morally acceptable” to receive vaccines using cells derived from aborted foetuses in the research and production process under two conditions: on the one hand, when there was no alternative available and, on the other, that the situation was serious enough.
Pope Francis, in various media, had publicly promoted universal vaccination to the point of also receiving the vaccine, along with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. And to set an example, since January 20, 2021 the Holy See has been delivering the precious medication to the homeless.
(Adapted from Aleteia.org)