1The first global pandemic of the digital age arrived suddenly. The world was stopped in its tracks by an unnatural suspension of activity that interrupted business and pleasure. “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.” These are the words Pope Francis used to portray the unprecedented situation. He pronounced them on March 27 before a completely empty Saint Peter’s Square, during an evening of Eucharistic adoration and an Urbi et Orbi blessing that was accompanied only by the sound of church bells mixed with ambulance sirens: the sacred and the pain.sharethis sharing button

The pope has also stated that this crisis period caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is “ a propitious time to find the courage for a new imagination of the possible, with the realism that only the Gospel can offer us.”[1]

The thick darkness, then, allows us to find the courage to imagine. How was it possible to send out such a message in a moment of depression and fear? We are accustomed to the probable, to what our minds suppose should happen, statistically speaking. However, we often lack the vision of the possible, which is sometimes confined to the world of the imagination. We are not accustomed to dwelling in possibility, to use the words of Emily Dickinson. So we need a “realism” that breaks our “fixed or failing patterns, modes and structures” and inspires us to imagine a different world, “making all things new,” as the Book of Revelation says. “Are we willing to change our lifestyles?” the pope asks.

Francis and contagion in a slowed down world

It is clear that there is a compelling need to understand what is happening to us, to give a human and spiritual reading of what we are living. For Francis, “understanding what God is saying to us at this time of pandemic also represents a challenge for the Church’s mission.”[2] It is also clear that we must first of all understand what we have done wrong. The pope, as a truly global leader, the only one at the moment recognized as such even in unsuspected quarters, has spoken of a seriously ill planet, of planetary injustices caused by an economy that aims only at profit, of international conflicts that today must be brought to an immediate end, and of embargoes and national selfishness. The pandemic has unmasked our vulnerability and the false and unnecessary security with which we have built our agendas, our projects, our habits and our priorities.

Change will occur if there is a chemical reaction between the “overflowing proclamation” of the Gospel and life “as it comes.”[3] This is what generates the “renewing outlook” that we need today. We are not called “to restart” in order to return to the normality of a golden age that in reality never was golden, but instead “to start anew.” The narratives of the restart are harmful, because they naturally tend to restore balances that must change. We need a new beginning.

The coronavirus is, in its own way, an alien. Or rather, by invading our bodies, it suddenly has changed the way we look at things; it forced us to see with an unaccustomed perspective, and we saw the world turned upside down. From that empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27, Francis spoke of a “necessary immunity.” But this is because the virus has become a metaphor that reveals a “sick world.” Immunity to the virus becomes the image of the necessary immunity to the evil of the world. Even the pandemic can be metaphorically overturned in its own destructive meaning and understood as a “contagion of hope.”

With Covid-19 we saw ourselves projected into a mirror that suddenly opened up before us. We saw our image inverted but, at the same time, connected to all the space around it: the deserted megalopolises, the absence of traffic the cities as appendages of empty fields.

The effect has been like that of a spinning pinwheel or a cursor, which appears on our monitors when there are slowdowns in programs or computer connections. We do not tolerate slowness or waiting, and so we normally abandon the blocked program or the slow connection. Now the “spinning wheel” caused by the virus is prolonged, and the state of suspension has affected society, the sense of relationships, worship and trade, the value of presence. This is why the infection has given us a sense of the apocalypse. Due to this shock, the inability to imagine a benign future has emerged.

During this time of pandemic Francis has intervened many times. Above all, he has comforted millions of people – from Rome to Beijing, from Beirut to Lima – with the Masses celebrated in Santa Marta. There has been the whispering of the Gospel in the silence of our homes, blessing with the Eucharist, mourning of death and suffering, the celebrating of life as much as possible. Consolation, comfort and prayer of intercession entered the homes of so many people. This is the first message of an accompanying Church. But Francis also aimed very much at building a new imagination to interpret both the present moment and the future, the vision of the possible.

We now look at the seven figures he has used to articulate his argument. They are the boat, the flame, the underground, the war (of the poets), the anointing, the window, and the pandemic itself understood as a metaphor.

The boat in the storm

The first image is the boat. In St. Peter’s Square that March 27, at 6 p.m., before adoring the Blessed Sacrament and giving his blessing Urbi et Orbi, the pope said: “We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. We are all of us on this boat.”

The powerful image was articulated in his language and contextualized.[4] The boat is in the storm, which “unmasks our vulnerability and leaves uncovered those false and unnecessary certainties with which we have built our agendas, our projects, our habits and priorities.” This is what the pandemic is: a storm that reveals the condition of the present in which we all live, a mirror that mercilessly reflects the image of a present in which “we have not awakened to wars and planetary injustice, we have not listened to the cry of the poor, and of our seriously ill planet. We continued undaunted, thinking that we would always remain healthy in a sick world. Now, while we are at sea in turmoil, we implore you, ‘Wake up Lord!’” Similarly, in one of his homilies, Francis also used the image of the flood.[5]

Looking into this mirror, the invocation, the prayer, is formed. Reality makes prayer spring from the heart, not pious speech. It also prompts action, for “it is time to reset the course of life toward You, Lord, and toward others.” Sailing in this boat, we can “look at so many exemplary companions who, in fear, reacted by giving their lives.”

And who are these comrades? Francis does not intend to make abstract speeches. He lists them, because a list is always the mark of reality in its richness and diversity: “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.”

The boat becomes the figure of a radical and human fraternity that the virus has made clear by attacking anyone and everyone, without any distinction of race, religion, origin or nationality. This is what the boat indicates: fraternity.[6]

Those words used by the pope in addressing the Jesuits in his homily on September 27, 2014, now apply to the whole of humanity. And the storm is the ideal place to discover fraternity, because it is not the situation to display or boast about strength and security. The storm implies embracing – with long oar strokes – “all the adversities of the present time, abandoning for a moment our yearning for omnipotence and possession,” and finding the courage to open “spaces where everyone can feel called and allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.” The believer recognizes that this fraternity is not human work and that one must “give space to the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of arousing.”

The new flame in the night

It was in the Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing that Francis provided another image, that of the flame, the second figure providing a stimulus to envisage what might be possible. If the pandemic was previously “storm,” now it is “night,” “the night of a world already struggling with epochal challenges and now oppressed by the pandemic, which puts our great human family to the test.” And precisely during this night “the voice of the Church has resounded: ‘Christ, my hope, is risen!’”

Francis often uses the image of the night. In particular, at the beginning of his pontificate, in Brazil, when referring to the disciples walking to Emmaus he said: “We need a Church unafraid of going forth into the night.” And on April 26 – in the midst of the pandemic – during the Regina Coeli he said: “We will discover that there are no unexpected events, no uphill paths, no nights that cannot be faced with Jesus.”

Francis describes the night of this pandemic time by focusing on four precise aspects, in some way four “nights.” These nights compose a picture of the situation, starting from the concerns of the ordinary citizens to open up a wider look at Europe, and the more complex international scenario,  caught up between sanctions and conflicts. This list of “nights” should be carefully reviewed.

The first night touches the life of the citizens, who live in “a time of concern for the uncertain future, for the work they risk losing and for the other consequences that the current crisis brings with it.” The pope encourages “those with political responsibilities to work actively for the common good of citizens, providing the necessary means and instruments to enable everyone to lead a dignified life and to encourage, when circumstances permit, the resumption of the usual daily activities.”

The second night is international sanctions. Francis launched an appeal for the easing of the sanctions “which inhibit the possibility of the countries that are the recipients of them to provide adequate support to their citizens, and enable all states to meet the greater needs of the moment, reducing, if not even forgiving, the debt that weighs on the budgets of the poorest ones.”

The third night is selfishness and rivalry between states. Here the pope’s speech was centered on Europe, to which he dedicated various references, including during the Masses celebrated in Santa Marta. At Easter he said: “Among the many areas of the world affected by the coronavirus, I address a special thought to Europe. After the Second World War, this continent was able to rise again thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that allowed it to overcome the rivalries of the past. It is all the more urgent, especially in today’s circumstances, that these rivalries should not be revived, but that everyone should recognize themselves as part of one family and support each other. Today the European Union faces an epoch-making challenge on which not only its future but that of the whole world will depend. Do not miss the opportunity to give further proof of solidarity, even by resorting to innovative solutions. The alternative is only the selfishness of particular interests and the temptation to return to the past, with the risk of putting peaceful coexistence and the development of future generations to the test.”

The fourth night is the night of armed conflict, with the call for a “global and immediate ceasefire in all corners of the world. This is not the time to continue manufacturing and trafficking weapons, spending huge amounts of capital that should be used to heal people and save lives.” Here the direct references were to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Ukraine, several African countries and Mozambique in particular, Libya, Greece and Turkey, Venezuela.

The four nights of the pandemic are a wide-ranging look at the world at the time of Covid-19 that identifies the knots to be undone. On to this scenario of “nights” of the world falls the prayer: “Christ our peace, enlighten those who have responsibilities.” This is an appeal that reveals the vanity of the reasoning of those who do not want to understand how the pope’s words about the world are not inspired by politics or ideology, but by the Gospel of Christ.

It is clear that Francis also intends to develop the principle of moral leadership proper to Vatican diplomacy, in a world that sees its geopolitical balances upset and that needs a robust confirmation of democratic dynamics.

The underground and the mountains

In the interview given to Austin Ivereigh, available through the Civiltà Cattolica website,  Francis said: “I’m going to dare to offer some advice. This is the time to go to the underground. I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s short novel, Notes from the Underground.”[7] Go underground to see the earth and understand its dynamics: this is necessary. These are dynamics that the pope reveals by referring to photographs: “A photo appeared the other day of a parking lot in Las Vegas where the homeless had been put in quarantine. And the hotels were empty. But the homeless cannot go to a hotel. That is the throwaway culture.” And another one: “In Rome recently, in the midst of the quarantine, a policeman said to a man: ‘You can’t be on the street, go home.’ The response was: ‘I have no home. I live on the street.’”

The call is to open our eyes, to see: “To ‘see’ the poor means to restore their humanity. They are not things, not garbage; they are people. We can’t settle for a welfare policy such as we have for rescued animals.” So “going underground” means passing “from the hyper-virtual, fleshless world to the suffering flesh of the poor.” Seeing the waste leads to touching the flesh.

Addressing the issue of young people, in that interview Francis proposed a reversal of the top/down perspective, and indicated the direction of the gaze from below. He asks the young people, in fact, to have “the courage to look ahead.” And he says this by quoting Virgil. When Aeneas has lost everything following defeat in Troy, two paths lie before him: remain there to weep and end his life, or “follow what was in his heart, to go up to the mountain and leave the war behind. It’s a beautiful verse: Cessi, et sublato montem genitore petivi ‘I gave way to fate and, bearing my father on my shoulders, made for the mountain.’”

The war of poets

In a context in which the “fight” against the virus has been treated in war-like terms, which describe it as an invasion by an enemy power, the citizen becomes a soldier and the helper becomes a hero. The logos gives way to polemos. In this semantic field generated by the word “war,” the one who “falls” and becomes ill is a loser. The sick person is a loser.

The pope does not shirk the use of the war metaphor, but he makes it perform a pirouette that alters its usual meaning. “In these days, full of difficulties and deep anguish,” he wrote in a letter to the Popular Movements on Easter Sunday, “many have used war-like metaphors to refer to the pandemic we are experiencing. If the struggle against Covid-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches, an army whose only weapons are solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are ‘social poets’ because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting the marginalized.”

It is very interesting how the metaphor is taken up and emptied from the inside, and resolved in its opposite. Who is the invisible army that fights in dangerous trenches? It is the poets, the “social poets.” The pope’s expression is unusual and must be explored. Who is the poet? It is the person who makes creative use of language: he or she uses everyone’s words, but to express something in a divergent way, an alternative to ordinary speech, to common or dominant narratives.

It is necessary to create a narrative that knows how to take risks and that corresponds to the appeal: “Roll up your sleeves and keep working for your families, your communities, and the common good.” Francis repeated this concept in other words during the Regina Coeli on May 24: “Encourage us to tell and share constructive stories that help us to understand that we are all part of a story that is larger than ourselves, and we can look to the future with hope if we truly care for one another as brothers and sisters.”

The pope uses the poetic-social paradigm to oppose the technocratic ones that put the state or the market at the center: “Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the center, united to heal, to care and to share,” writes Francis. The action of the army of poets aims at “healing,” that is, it has a therapeutic value. Healing consists in “taking back control of our lives,” in shaking “our sleepy consciences,” in producing “a human and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the center.”

The perfumed anointing of service

A fourth image used by Francis is the one that emerges from an article he wrote in the magazine Vida Nueva on April 17, 2020, entitled “A Plan to Resurrect.”[8] In this very rich text the pope affirms that the pandemic situation that “overwhelmed” us evokes in the believer a listening to the “overflowing” proclamation of the resurrection.[9]

What was the pontiff focusing on? “We have seen,” he writes, “the anointing poured by 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 had the courage to offer everything they had to give a little care, calm and soul to the situation.” Here the list appears again. But those who were described on March 27 as “exemplary companions for the journey,” now, on April 17, are those who pour the oil of anointing, perfumed like chrism, that is, the oil of consolation and blessing. After all, companionship is a blessing. And “the poured perfume” has “more capacity for diffusion” than the despair that threatened the disciples at the death of the Master. Thus “it is enough to open a crack so that the anointing the Lord wants to give us can expand with unstoppable force and allow us to contemplate the painful reality with a renewing gaze.”

It is the perfumed anointing of service that accompanies sorrowful humanity and allows us to be “creators and protagonists of a common history.” This is once again the key point: the anointing leads to the construction of a common history that reveals human brotherhood. Francis’ message is strongly affirmative in this sense. The time of the virus becomes a kairos, a favorable moment of which to take advantage. From the analysis of the “nights” of the world we pass to the vision of the future that awaits us, “if we act as one people.”

The anointing “opens horizons” and “awakens creativity,” which for its rhythm has the “beat of the Spirit.” The political discourse becomes spiritual and prophetic; the Lord “wants to generate in this concrete moment of history” dynamics of “new life.” And so – as we already mentioned at the beginning of this reflection – “this is the propitious time to find the courage for a new imagination of the possible, with the realism that only the Gospel can offer. The Spirit, who does not allow himself to be locked up or used within fixed or transient schemes, modalities and structures, proposes to unite us to his movement capable of ‘making all things new’ (Rev 21:5).” Hence the appeal: “Let us take this trial as an opportunity to prepare for the tomorrow of all, without discarding anyone: of all. This is because without a vision for everyone there will be no future for anyone.” 

The window and the society of preventive medicine

A negative image that we highlight was used by Francis in his Letter to the priests of the diocese of Rome, sent on May 30 because it had not been possible to celebrate the Chrism Mass. In a dense text, he treasures the intense communication he had with the priests of his diocese by e-mail and telephone. From these “sincere dialogues” he was confirmed in the fact that the “necessary distance was not synonymous with withdrawal or closure into the self that anesthetizes, puts mission to sleep and turns it off.”

Indeed, “the notion of a ‘safe’ society, carefree and poised for infinite consumption” has been challenged by the virus, “revealing its lack of cultural and spiritual immunity to conflict.” One should not delude oneself that the questions that have emerged in this time will be answered with the reopening of activities. Rather, it will be indispensable to “prepare and open up the path that the Lord is now calling us to take.” It is not possible, therefore, to remain extraneous to these realities by simply “looking out at them from the window.” Here is the negative image, the window as synonymous with distance.

The pope instead praises the priests “soaked by the raging storm.” “Soaked” is the key word. It is not the balconyar, as the pope likes to say in his Argentine porteño dialect, but the Church being on the road, callejera. Francis actually gave this message by placing his body, even his limp, at the service of a message of closeness and hope. On the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, walking along a stretch of Via del Corso, as if on pilgrimage, he reached the church of San Marcello al Corso, where there is the miraculous Crucifix that in 1522 was carried in procession through the districts of the city to end the “Great Plague” in Rome. In his prayer Francis sought the end of the pandemic. His spiritual authority was concentrated in his perfect isolation at a time when bodies had disappeared from the streets. Those steps were necessary to offer up to Christ on the cross our lockdown and prophetically foreshadow the paved road after Covid.

“Looking out at them from the window” instead confirms the narrative of preventative medicine, being safe, which is brought about by distancing and anesthetizing. The logic of the window must be overcome by an immersive logic, which “soaks” and involves from below, inviting us to elaborate new ways and new lifestyles.

The pandemic as a metaphor for understanding the world

Finally, we note how the pontiff in his speeches used not only metaphors to talk about the pandemic and its effects, but the pandemic itself as a metaphor for diseases in general and for the evils of the world[10]: “But there are so many other pandemics that make people die and we don’t notice – said Francis in Santa Marta on May 14, 2020 – we look the other way.” And, after recalling some data, he continued: “May God have mercy on us and stop the other awful pandemics: of hunger, of war, of children without education.” In the homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, the “pandemic” detected by the pope was that of the virus called “indifferent selfishness.” There is a sort of pandemic of the spirit and of social relations, of which the coronavirus has become a symbol and image.

Boat, flame, underground, war (of the poets), anointing, window, pandemic

Here then are the seven images: the boat, the flame, the underground, the war (of the poets), the perfumed anointing, the useless window, the pandemic itself as a metaphor. These are the tesserae that make up the mosaic of an imagined, possible world that calls our attention, on the one hand, and on the other, encourages us: “Faith grants us a realistic and creative imagination, one capable of abandoning the mentality of repetition, substitution and maintenance” and pushes us to “face reality without fear.”[11]

Francis has indicated with his seven images – not in a Pelagian and voluntaristic way, but relying on the work of the Spirit – a firm trust in the human person, and in reason that can understand problems – and in the ability to act with competence and determination.

The pope has enhanced the time of waiting, the “spinning wheel” of our operating system, to become a “mirror” for a world in crisis. And to do this he had to interpret chaos. In the end, however, the mirror is the Gospel itself. Whoever does not see it and relegates Francis’ discourse to “politics” without faith falls into a visual aberration, into that strabismus caused by the lack of fusion that allows the images of the two eyes to unite into one vision. Francis looks at the world as the vicar of Christ, that is, with the eyes of Christ; and he does so theologically, combining an apocalyptic interpretation, an invitation to conversion and an Easter perspective of death and resurrection.[12]

The task for the Church is what the pope had already indicated in the interview with La Civiltà Cattolica in 2013: to be a “field hospital”[13] to heal and tend the wounds of humanity. Believers are not called to multiply pious words, but to give Gospel solutions, moved and inspired by Revelation. This is the social doctrine of the Church. This is the conversion of the gaze. And this is the time of a different world, which requires both the recognition of global vulnerability and the imagination proper to Gospel realism.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 07 art. 11, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0720.11

[1].          Francis, “Un plan para resuscitar. Una meditación”, in Vida Nueva, April 18-24, 2020, 8-11.

[2].          Id., “Message for World Mission Day 2020”. Francis, in a Letter to the priests of the diocese of Rome dated May 30, 2020, makes an analogy and recalls how the first apostolic community “also lived moments of confinement, isolation, fear and uncertainty.” Fifty days passed between the closure “and the incipient announcement that would change their lives forever.”

[3].          Ibid.

[4].          The boat is also the image that Francis used on September 27, 2014, in the homily of the Mass for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the reconstitution of the Society of Jesus. On that occasion he said to the Jesuits: “Row therefore! Row, be strong, even in a contrary wind!” (Francis, “Remate dunque! Remate, siate forti!”, in Civ. Catt. 2014 IV 108).

[5].          Cf. Francis, Homily at Mass in Santa Marta, May 14, 2020.

[6].          Let us remember that in Evangelii Gaudium Francis had used the image of the “caravan” as an expression of the “mystique of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity” (No. 87). The pope loves these images of collective transport, accustomed as he was to buses and subways. He reveals in a daily and simple image the sense of the common story of the world and of universal ties.

[7].          A. Ivereigh, “The Confined Pope. Interview with Pope Francis”, in La Civilta Cattolica En., April 9, 2020, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/pope-francis-and-the-coronavirus-crisis/

[8].          See Francis, “Un plan para resuscitar…”, op. cit.

[9].          See D. Fares, “The Heart of ‘Querida Amazonia’: ‘Overflowing en route’”, Civ. Catt. En. May 2020 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-heart-of-querida-amazonia-overflowing-en-route/

[10].         It is a peculiar use, because in his speeches Francis uses the vocabulary of health in a very flexible way. For example, he once said that “the Word that saves does not go in search of preserved, sterilized, safe places” (Francis, Homily for the Sunday of the Word of God, January 26, 2020). Speaking with the Jesuits in Mozambique on September 5, 2019, he had supported crossbreeding, saying that “today we are tempted by a form of sterilized sociology. It seems that one considers a country as if it were an operating theatre, where everything is sterilized: my race, my family, my culture, as if there were a fear of dirtying it, staining it, infecting it” (A. Spadaro, “The Sovereignty of the People of God”. The dialogues of Pope Francis with the Jesuits of Mozambique and Madagascar”, in Civ. Catt En., Sept, 2019 (https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-sovereignty-of-the-people-of-god-the-pontiff-meets-the-jesuits-of-mozambique-and-madagascar/). It is therefore clear that for Francis the semantic field of the word “sterile” is negative.

[11].         Francis, Letter to the priests of the diocese of Rome, op. cit.

[12].         Cf. L. Oviedo Torró, “La teologia en tiempos de pandemia”, in Razón y fe, 2020, 281.

[13].         A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 449-477.