“You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing.. a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”
– Pope Francis
A phrase we have all recently become very familiar with is “social distancing” – keeping ourselves apart from others because of the coronavirus pandemic and the risk of either giving or receiving infection. And it was for this reason that on Friday evening, our Holy Father Pope Francis delivered his Extraordinary Urbi Et Orbi blessing to a Saint Peter’s Square which was devoid of people.
While many commented widely on that emptiness, something quite different was even more apparent.
As individual human beings, we may be practising ‘social distancing’ – but as Church, we are coming together in what might be described as ‘spiritual gathering’. By this, I mean that through the electronic media, we are learning to come together as Church in ways we might not be used to, but which are proving to be exceptionally powerful regardless of that.
An example of this are the many who are live-streaming Mass on Sundays and other days; whilst not the same as being physcially present, still it is a bridge to the celebration of the Sacraments and it is proving to be a life-line for many. It is also offering our Bishops and Priests new and very effective ways to reach out to souls who might not otherwise consider engaging with the Church or with organised religion.
The Urbi Et Orbi was undoubtedly the most encompassing and the most powerful such ‘spiritual gathering’ so far.
It is reported that 11 million people across the world watched live as the Holy Father walked through the empty Square, ascended the steps and then began to speak. His words resonated not just in that Square, but across the entire world. I read one commentator, who thought that moment instantly became the defining moment of this papacy. He may well be right. The Pope spoke and the entire Catholic world listened intently as his words went out into the darkness, becoming a flickering light which cut through the gloom that has descended, a message of hope.
After speaking, the Holy Father went toward the Basilica, at whose entrance had been placed two very special items.
First, the Pope honoured the icon of Our Blessed Lady known as ‘Salus Populi Romani’ – ‘Salvation of the Roman People’. Residing normally in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, it is the same icon the Holy Father visits before and after every one of his foreign trips. It had been brought specially for this service.
The second was the miraculous Crucifix from the Church of San Marcello – it was before this Crucifix that the Holy Father prayed so recently, after having walked alone through the streets of a deserted Rome. Kissing the feet of the Crucified One, this act of penance was offered on behalf of the Church, of the world, and of every single one of us.
The most powerful and intense moment then followed.
Walking into the entrance at the front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis then prayed silently before the Most Blessed Sacrament, exposed in the Monstrance upon an Altar which had been erected. Then, taking the Monstrance and lifting it high, he blessed the entire world. Or, more correctly, the Lord Himself blessed the entire world.
At this sublime moment, I found myself on my knees for the Benediction and the recitation of the Divine Praises; and I know, from others I have heard from, that I was not the only one to do so.
In these singular moments, the Holy Father did something extraordinary, giving to all of us the One we have missed more than anything else – Our Lord in the Eucharist. I am sure that as the Monstrance was lifted up, many souls across the world told the Lord how they long for Him and how they desire to receive him again in that Eucharist. That symphony of prayer arose to Heaven louder and more powerfully than the bells of the Basilica, which were ringing out continuously.
And then it was all over. The Blessed Sacrament was taken back to the Tabernacle within the Basilica and the Holy Father departed.
For that one hour, the electronic media allowed the entire Church to gather together in one spirit, standing in solidarity with our Pope so that all of us, regardless of where we were physically in the world, were united as one Church.
Long after these dark days are over and the gloom has lifted, still I will treasure that one hour; it is the moment from these days that I will always remember, and with deep gratitude.
It was a moment of great divine grace, of Divine Mercy.